Dams in Distress

Water conservation, hydroelectric power, and the state of the American dam

Just as much of our country’s infrastructure (bridges, railway, electricity grids, mass transit networks) faces questions about its condition of late, many major dams are now encountering related doubts about reliability and efficiency.

Water conservation is a growing concern for the environment and energy sectors. Climate change is a predominant reason for this, supplemented by recent record droughts in the western states. Capping all the issues with water conservation, though, is the fact that many major dams built in the mid-20th century have not lived up to their design purposes and suffer from leakage, evaporation, and inefficiency. As far as the energy sector is concerned, sources of hydroelectricity are severely affected.

Natural imposition such as flood and drought is one thing. But sewage overflows, leakage, failing levees, and lack of upkeep leading to unsafe conditions at dams are man-made issues that are preventable and adjustable. Some even contend that leakage into the ground can be still converted into naturally conserved water if proper salvaging methods and systems are implemented. The major concern for many is that we may have waited too long to act.

Much of the water infrastructure is outdated, and communities big and small across the country are feeling the impacts. In its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure from 2014, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s dams a D grade, and wastewater and drinking water systems a D-, the lowest grades of any infrastructure category. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that the public health and environmental gains achieved since passage of the Clean Water Act are rapidly being reversed due to crumbling infrastructure. A recent Sunday New York Times even highlighted the issue in an article that dominated the front page of the Sunday Review section. The Times honed in on Glen Canyon, in southern Utah, as a prime example of the dam problem.

Solutions are scarce at the moment. One alternative is tidal power, a form of hydropower that converts energy from the ocean’s tides into energy sources, mainly electricity. This renewable energy source is more predictable and consistent than wind or solar, but not nearly as frequently used due to its high production cost and limited site availability. Engineers and electricity generation specialists have also found it difficult to harness. Despite this, recent progress in technologies like dynamic tidal power, tidal lagoons, axial turbines, and cross-flow turbines show promise for the method’s growth. Some examples from abroad indicate the time is ripe for tidal’s emergence.

As far as the repair/replace decision regarding the current dam-age (sorry, couldn’t help myself), the problem has been surreptitiously identified long before this year’s big articles, and solutions, although minimal, have been offered. Almost ten years ago, in a 2007 article from Issues in Science and TechnologyJames Workman detailed a cap-and-trade solution that could potentially resolve what he essentially concedes is an irreversible financial crisis. And this was in 2007. Workman contends:

“The most successful and least intrusive policies can be grouped under the strategic approach known as cap and trade. That is, the government sets a mandatory ceiling on effects, pollution, or emissions by a finite group of public and private property stakeholders. This ceiling is typically lower than present conditions. But rather than forcing individual stakeholders to comply with that target by regulatory fiat, each one can trade offsets, what amount to pollution credits, with each other. Those who cut waste, emissions, and effects better may sell their extra credits to laggards or newcomers. This approach leverages incentives to reform, innovate, and improve into a competitive advantage in which everyone benefits, and so does nature.”

Regardless of what steps are taken now, a key step is admission of the grave conditions of these dams and water conservation systems, allowing us to begin working towards solutions.



  1. Levee Rage | Electrical Apparatus Magazine - January 4, 2017

    […] Many of the country’s bridges, tunnels, roadways, railroads, and dams were built during the mid-20th century, and may not have been consistently or properly serviced during that entire time period. They now face the daunting task of refurbishment, replacement, or restoration…and none of the options are cheap. […]

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