Infrastructure act will pump $3B into nation’s ailing dams

Ruth D. Adamson

The recently signed federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes about $3 billion for dam safety, modernization and removal, as well as for hydropower projects. While that sum is not enough to cover all needed repairs and upgrades for the nation’s aging dams, it does mark a significant uptick in funding, according to experts.

The act addresses problematic dams in three ways: 

  • rehabilitating them for safety and efficiency.
  • retrofitting them to enhance electricity production and protect marine wildlife.
  • removing the ones that no longer provide much benefit and harm the environment.

There are over 91,000 dams in the U.S., and they are used for flood protection, hydropower, water supply, irrigation, mining and recreation. As of 2019, about 15,600 of them are classified as high-hazard-potential structures — meaning their failure would likely result in a loss of human life and property damage, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). About 2,300 have been labeled “deficient” and in urgent need of repairs.

Rehabilitating all of the nation’s high-hazard dams could cost over $20 billion, according to an Association of State Dam Safety Officials report. As for removing dams, the cost is unique to the project and can vary widely, so it’s difficult to predict exactly how far the money will go. Nonetheless, it is clear that the act provides for a massive and much-needed increase in funds.

“This legislation is long overdue and everyone in the industry is eagerly anticipating funding being released to address the extensive infrastructure needs of our dams,” said Sharon Powers, executive director of the U.S. Society on Dams, in an email. “Once federal and state agencies know what funding levels are coming their way, the work will begin to identify rehabilitation projects.”

Until 2019 there was no national program solely focused on keeping dams owned by local and state governments up to date, according to the AP. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has funneled about $400 million for projects involving dams over the past 10 years, this was primarily to fix damages from natural disasters, not upkeep or modernization. 

Funds for critical repairs

In 2019, FEMA’s Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams Grant Program was created to improve dams overseen by government entities nationwide. The infrastructure act adds $585 million into the High Hazard Potential Dams Grant Program — more than 18 times what it gave out from 2019 to 2021, according to the AP — with $75 million specifically for dam removal. 

The new FEMA funds also include $148 million for state dam safety offices, much more than the roughly $7 million distributed annually to all states. Many of these offices are underfunded and stretched thin. For example, after dam failures in Michigan forced 10,000 residents to evacuate and caused $175 million in damages, a 2020 state dam safety program report found the safety office was extremely understaffed and that the state had not invested in dam safety in decades. With these new funds, states can hire more staff to assess dam safety and develop emergency action plans to help protect those who live downstream.

As of 2019 56.4% of U.S. dams were privately owned, according to the ASCE, and repairs on these types of dams can be difficult as regulators have little leverage over owners who don’t have the money or desire to make repairs. Now, there are funds available to private owners for this purpose.

Preparing for climate change

Besides a landmark investment in infrastructure, the act is also the country’s biggest climate preparedness investment to date. It contains hundreds of millions of dollars for nature-based strategies to make road and bridge projects more resilient and resistant to flooding due to extreme weather and related dam and levee failure. Its hydropower investments are also a boon for the environment. 

Currently only about 3% of U.S. dams, or 2,500, produce electricity, a key source of renewable energy. According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office, the country could grow its hydropower capacity by a third by 2050 and avoid $209 billion in costs from greenhouse gas emissions damages by upgrading dams that produce power and adding that capacity to ones that don’t. The act moves towards that goal with funds to do just that.

How the money will be distributed and where it will go

A variety of federal agencies will oversee the surge in dam and other infrastructure funding, and are charged with administering new grants and creating new programs. Local and state government agencies, including water utilities and transportation departments, must identify and execute projects in their area. That may include hiring new people and sometimes mobilizing their own financial resources.

There are buckets of funds for dams throughout the legislation:

Infrastructure act funding for dams
$553 million Department of Energy (DOE) Water Power Technologies Office grant program to support grid resilience, dam safety upgrades and environmental enhancements at existing hydropower facilities
$125 million DOE Water Power Technologies Office incentives to add hydropower capacity at existing dams and conduits
$75 million DOE Water Power Technologies Office hydropower efficiency improvements at existing hydropower projects
$500 million For dam safety in accordance with the Reclamation Safety of Dams Act of 1978

 
$100 million Through the Bureau of Reclamation for dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement
$100 million Dam rehabilitation, reconstruction or replacement through the Bureau of Reclamation for western water infrastructure
$118 million Natural Resources Conservation Service Small Watershed Rehab Program Grants
$75 million Safety projects to maintain, upgrade and repair dams identified in the National Inventory of Dams with a state, local government, public utility, or private owner, of which $64 million is for the grants themselves and $11 million is set aside for administration of the program
$400 million National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Community Based Restoration Grant Program
$200 million Bureau of Indian Affairs for safety of dams, water sanitation, and other facilities
$585 million High Hazard Potential Dam Rehab grants for states, of which $75 million is designated for dam removal and $148 million is for state dam safety offices
$200 million U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Fish Passage Program
$67 million FEMA Operations and Support for dam safety activities and assistance to states under sections 7 through 12 of the National Dam Safety Program Act
$148 million State assistance grants related to the National Dam Safety Program Act
$115 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program
$10 million U.S. Forest Service Legacy Roads & Trails for removal of non-hydropower federal dams

SOURCE: Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

In addition, the act permits some Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program funds to be used for modernization and rehabilitation of locks and dams that are connected to highways, so long as they are “likely to contribute to the attainment or maintenance of a national ambient air quality standard.”

The act is not a quick-hit stimulus effort, but rather a generational investment that will require high levels of coordination between different levels of government, according to Brookings. How quickly the funds reach localities depends greatly on the types of projects they’re seeking and the programs directing resources to them — programs built from scratch, for example, will take longer than those already built to receive federal funds. While it may be years before the impact is visible, dam safety advocates, environmentalists and contractors alike have expressed excitement about the investment.

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