As the United States busily built nearly 50,000 large dams to curb floods, store drinking water, irrigate crops, generate electricity, create recreation areas and spur industrial development, it too often neglected questions of the safety of the structures holding back the water. The result was a vast reservoir of danger. One scientific study concluded that in any year America’s dams were 10,000 times more likely to cause a major disaster–one involving 1,000 or more deaths–than were 100 nuclear power plants.
The need to identify America’s dangerous dams is urgent. According to Dr. Bruce A. Tschantz, a University of Tennessee civil engineering professor and a White House consultant on dam safety, in any given year, 25 to 30 of the nation’s dams may break. Tschantz goes on to say that there are so many large dams and there is such a legacy of neglect that there may be yet more disasters before the backlog of hazards can be erased.
Of the 49,422 large dams (each 25 feet or more in height or capable of impounding more than 16.3 million gallons of water) counted by the Corps of Engineers in a national inventory, about 39,000 have never been inspected by state or federal engineers. Also, new dams are being built at a phenomenal rate. Dr. Tschantz has found that on an average day, five new private dams are completed in America–double the rate of the 1950’s. The biggest boom is in dams for recreational lakes, which are sometimes crude earthen structures built by real estate developers without engineering device:
Due to the staggering potential of dam disasters and the lack of public awareness, this story qualifies to be nominated as one of the “best censored” stories of 1978.
Smithsonian, April, 1978, p. 36, “The Search for Dangerous Dams-A Program to Head Off Disaster,” by Gaylord Shaw: