U.S. Senate Panel Examines Dam Safety Concerns

The evacuations prompted by severe erosion to the spillway of California's Oroville Dam has made this a hot-button infrastructure issue.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on flood control infrastructure and dam safety on March 1, hearing from officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the California Natural Resources Agency. Large-scale evacuations prompted by severe erosion to the spillway of California's Oroville Dam last month have suddenly made this a hot-button infrastructure issue.

The hearing witnesses included Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite, commanding general and chief of engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Ron Corbett, mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; John Laird, deputy secretary for external affairs with the California Natural Resources Agency; and Larry A. Larson, director emeritus and senior policy advisor for the Association of State Floodplain Managers Inc.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is the committee's chairman, and his statement emphasized the importance of maintaining the nation's infrastructure. "As I have stated, infrastructure is critical to our nation's prosperity," he said. "It is a priority because it is a driver of our nation’s economy, and it impacts every community. . . . Our last hearing focused on highways and roads, and the needs of rural water systems, all of which are within this committee’s purview. Recent natural weather events in the last month in California and other western states are highlighting the need to focus our attention on our levees and dams, and other structures, that prevent catastrophic flooding in both rural and urban communities."

He said the Oroville crisis raises questions about the readiness of the nation's flood prevention infrastructure, and that "dams and levees across the country need to be modernized and maintained if we are to prevent future disasters.I believe any infrastructure bill that this committee develops should consider the need to maintain and modernize these structures."

In his testimony, Semonite pointed out the Corps of Engineers owns and operates only 715 dams (less than 1 percent of the 90,580 dams in the 2016 national inventory of dams, he said) and about 2,500 miles of levees (less than 10 percent of the roughly 30,000 miles now in the national levee inventory, he said). "Infrastructure designed and constructed for the conditions and practices of two generations ago now delivers its benefits in an ever-changing world," he added. "We know the infrastructure embeds the decisions and practices of the past in its construction, but what changes? Over time, all infrastructure ages and deteriorates, unless it is properly maintained and periodically rehabilitated. Our understanding of the frequency and intensity of hydrologic and seismic events also changes, as so the sizes of populations living and working near the infrastructure. Meanwhile, the practice of engineering and science leaps ahead. Also, consider that in the last six years, the national has experienced five flood events that exceeded a 1 in 1,000 chance of occurring."

He said the Corps of Engineers is addressing these changes in a risk-informed manner."

Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a four-point plan to bolster dam safety and flood protection in the state. He pledged to invest $437 million in near-term flood control and emergency response actions by redirecting $50 million from the General Fund and requesting a $387 million Proposition 1 appropriation from the Legislature as soon as possible; require emergency action plans and flood inundation maps for all dams; enhance California's existing dam inspection program; and seek prompt regulatory action and increased funding from the federal government to improve dam safety.

Even with those actions, California has nearly $50 billion in unmet flood management infrastructure needs, he said, adding that his administration will continue to work with the Legislature through the budget process on solutions, including potential changes to Proposition 218, which continues to prevent local government from fixing core infrastructure, he said.

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