Dams 101

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Dams Are a Vital Part of the National Infrastructure

Water is one of our most precious resources; our lives depend on it. Throughout the history of humankind, people have built dams to maximize use of this vital resource.  

Dams provide a life-sustaining resource to people in all regions of the United States. They are an extremely important part of this nation’s infrastructure—equal in importance to bridges, roads, airports, and other major elements of the infrastructure. They can serve several functions at once, including water supply for domestic, agricultural, industrial, and community use; flood control; recreation; and clean, renewable energy through hydropower.

As populations have grown and moved to arid or flood-prone locations, the need for dams has increased.


 

Some of the benefits of dams are:

Irrigation: Ten percent of American cropland is irrigated using water stored behind dams.

Electrical generation: The US is one of the largest producers of hydropower in the world, second only to Canada. Dams produce 8-12 percent of the nation's power needs.

Flood control: Dams built with the assistance of the Natural Resources Conservation Service provide an estimated $1.7 billion in annual benefits in reduced flooding and erosion damage, recreation, water supplies, and wildlife habitat. Dams owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority produce electricity and prevent an average of about $280 million in flood damage each year.

Renewable, clean energy: Without hydropower, the US would have to burn an additional 121 million tons of coal, 27 million barrels of oil, and 741 billion cubic feet of natural gas combined.
Water storage: Dams create reservoirs that supply water for a multitude of uses, including fire control irrigation, recreation, domestic and industrial water supply, and more.

Navigation: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation projects in the U.S. serve 41 states, maintain 12,000 miles of channels, carry 15% of U.S. freight carried by inland waterways, operate 275 locks, and maintain 926 harbors.
Recreation: Dams provide prime recreational facilities throughout the U.S. Ten percent of the U.S. population visits at least one U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility each year.


 

It is important to understand that safe operation and maintenance is key to sustaining these advantages and avoiding potential disaster.

Dam failures can and have occurred in the U.S. causing loss of life and and severe economic and environmental damage.

The average age of the 90,580 dams in the country is 56 years. As our population grows and development continues, the overall number of high-hazard potential dams (those whose failure could cause loss of life) is increasing, with the number climbing to nearly 15,500 in 2016. Another 11,882 dams are currently labeled as significant hazard potential, meaning a failure would not necessarily cause a loss of life, but could result in significant economic losses.

Due to the lack of investment, the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams has also climbed to an estimated 2,170. ASDSO estimates that it would take an investment of $18.71 billion to rehabilitate all of the non-fereral, high-hazard potential dams in the US. (Download the full report at the "In This Section" widget at right.) According to the ASCE 2016 Report Card, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that more than $25 billion will be required to address dam deficiencies for Corps-owned dams. At current investment rates, these repairs would take over 50 years to complete. The Bureau of Reclamation has identified approximately 20 of its high- and significant-hazard potential dams as in need of repair or upgrade. The cost of those actions is estimated at $2 billion over the next 15 years.

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