This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In the United States, the Army Corps of Engineers has signed a contract with the state of Georgia, resolving a water supply issue that has long been simmering. The contract allows two suburban Atlanta counties and three cities to pull drinking water from Lake Lanier, a reservoir in northern Georgia. The Army Corps operates the reservoir, and the Associated Press says the agreement marks the first time that Gwinnett and Forsyth counties have had confirmation of their rights to Lake Lanier. Water and natural resources managers in the area praised the agreement, saying it resolves concerns over long-term water supply and solidifies the area’s right to Lake Lanier drinking water. The lake is part of a watershed that spans three river systems and is shared by Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. That watershed has been the focus of legal wrangling over water supply for more than three decades. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on February 22 in a much broader water-supply case involving Georgia’s water use.
Also in the United States, the New York Times reports that the Biden administration is proposing as much as $10 billion to avoid climate disasters. The plan would redirect a portion of FEMA’s overall disaster spending towards projects designed to head off damage from storms, fires, and rising seas. Local jurisdictions could use the funds to build seawalls, and to modify or move homes. The proposal reflects an effort by the Biden administration to address climate adaptation and speaks to the the rapid overhaul of policies set under former President Donald Trump.
In the city of Chicago, a council member introduced a bill to address water affordability and residential water debt. The bill from Alderman Daniel La Spata would prevent the city utility from shutting off residential water because of late payments. The bill would also introduce a discount program and prohibit the city from selling or leasing parts of the water system to for-profit operators. The bill is similar to a water discount and debt relief program that Mayor Lori Lightfoot initiated last year . The difference is that council legislation would make it permanent. The mayor is committed to the program for at least two years. The Chicago Tribune reports that this is the second time La Spata has floated the proposal. The first version of the bill, introduced in 2017, did not pass.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the risks of aging water infrastructure.
From the early to mid 20th century, dams were all the rage. But the dam-building binge is coming to a turning point. That’s according to a report published by the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health.
Those dams are nearing middle and old age, when running them – and repairing them – pose growing financial, environmental, and safety challenges. Though each dam is a unique case, age brings common risks, such as rising maintenance costs and declining capacity to store water due to sediment buildup. Or continued environmental harm from blocking fish migration and stagnant waters in reservoirs. Or designs vulnerable to collapse in an era of more intense rainstorms and severe weather.
The report’s authors want to draw government attention to the problem of aging dams and to initiate discussions about best practices for decommissioning and removing structures whose costs now outweigh their benefits. As they put it, “With the mass aging of dams well underway, it is important to develop a framework of protocols that will guide and accelerate the process of dam removal.”
Several notable dam failures have occurred in the United States in the last five years, from Edenville Dam in Michigan to Spencer Dam in Nebraska to dozens of dams in the Carolinas that crumbled during tropical storms. In 2017, during a wet winter, nearly 190,000 people in California were evacuated downstream of Oroville Dam, after the spillway cracked amid surging outflows.
There are roughly 59 thousand large dams worldwide. These dams are designed for a range of purposes: to supply water for irrigation and cities, to generate electricity, hold mining waste, protect against flooding, and provide playgrounds for boaters.
The United States was one of the first countries to embrace widespread damming of rivers. It is now the leader in tearing them down. The conservation group American Rivers has tracked some 17 hundred dam removals there since 1912, and the pace is growing. Eighty-five percent have been torn down in the last three decades, including two dams on the Elwha River, in Washington state, which is the world’s largest dam removal project to date.
Most of the removals in the United States, however, have been smaller dams. That’s because of the expense and complexity of taking down larger structures. The Elwha project took more than two decades from planning to completion and it cost nearly $325 million.
Just as human health varies among individuals, age alone is an inadequate indicator of a dam’s condition. The report notes that even young dams are risky if they were poorly constructed. The Sardoba Dam, which collapsed in Uzbekistan last year, was only three years old. But a general rule of thumb is that after about 50 years, maintenance becomes more problematic.
Many large dams are already in that age range. In North America and Asia, more than 16 thousand such structures are between 50 and 100 years old, according to the International Commission on Large Dams. Over two thousand dams have passed their centennial year. Some countries are dominated by geriatric structures. In Japan and the United Kingdom, the average age of large dams is above 100 years.
Globally, dam building peaked in the 1970s, meaning that the U.S. experience is a precursor. The world is reaching an era of dam retirement, especially in Asia. China, India, Japan, and South Korea are among the leaders in the number of large dams.
Upmanu Lall is the director of the Columbia Water Center and has studied the risks of aging water infrastructure. He said that the report has an understandably clear bias in favor of removing dams. Still, he said, dealing with older dams is a matter of tradeoffs. On one hand, reservoirs can be a significant source of methane, which is a greenhouse gas, while on the other hand, hydropower is part of the effort to address climate change. The right decisions require weighing risks and securing financing. And Lall told Circle of Blue “At the same time, the risk associated with old, poorly maintained dams is real, and they are not cheap to remove. So, this is a conundrum that will take a while to play out.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.