UN report: Aging dams pose growing threat

Published 1/22/2021  |  American Rivers
H. Neely Henry Dam, built and operated by Alabama Power Company, on the Coosa River. | Kerry Sanders

By 2050, most people on Earth will live downstream of tens of thousands of large dams built in the 20th century, many of them already operating at or beyond their design life, according to a UN University analysis.

The report, “Aging water infrastructure: An emerging global risk,” by UNU’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, provides an overview of dam aging by world region and details the increasing risk of older dams. According to the report, most of the 58,700 large dams worldwide were constructed between 1930 and 1970 with a design life of 50 to 100 years, adding that at 50 years a large concrete dam “would most probably begin to express signs of aging”.

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Aging, unsafe dams are a growing threat in the U.S. From the failure of the Edenville Dam in Michigan in May 2020, to the failure of multiple dams in the Carolinas, this is an issue that continues to put lives and property at risk.

The Biden-Harris administration can begin to address this challenge by investing in dam safety and dam removal. In our 2021 blueprint, American Rivers calls on the administration to launch a national fund to prioritize and fund dam removals.

This includes:

  • Fund barrier removal to improve habitat, connectivity, water quality and public safety
  • Develop a schedule for reviewing the operation of federal facilities
  • Develop accurate budget projections that reflect the true costs of maintaining and operating federal water infrastructure.
  • Facilitate dam removal and river restoration through the hydropower relicensing process.

“From Michigan to the Carolinas, we’ve had multiple wake up calls that too many dams are outdated and unsafe. This report raises another alarm that we must not ignore,” said Brian Graber, senior director of river restoration for American Rivers.

“The U.S. has been a leader in dam removal and river restoration. We must continue to lead by investing more in dam safety and river restoration to keep our rivers healthy and our communities safe.”

No Time to Waste

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