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December 6, 2005 - ASCE Statement - USDA's Watershed Programs - Natural Resouces Conservation Service (NRCS)

Testimony of
American Society of Civil Engineers
Presented to the
Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development and
of the Committee on Agriculture
U. S. House of Representatives

December 6, 2005

The American Society of Civil Engineers is pleased to submit this statement in support of the USDA’s Watershed Programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Mr. Chairman, we thank you, on behalf of the millions of Americans that live below the nation’s watershed dams, for your tremendous efforts that resulted in passage of the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Act of 2000 (PL 106-472) and your steadfast support for full funding of this critical public safety program.

ASCE, founded in 1852, is the country's oldest national civil engineering organization. It represents more than 139,000 civil engineers in private practice, government, industry, and academia who are dedicated to the advancement of the science and profession of civil engineering.

Dams provide tremendous benefits, including water supply for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses; flood control; hydroelectric power; recreation; and navigation. However, dams also represent one of the greatest risks to public safety, local and regional economies and the environment. Historically, some of the largest disasters in the United States have resulted from dam failures. In 1889, 2,209 lives were lost when the South Fork Dam failed above Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The 1928 St. Francis Dam failure killed 450. During the 1970s, the failures of the Buffalo Creek Dam in West Virginia, Teton Dam in Idaho and the Toccoa Falls Dam in Georgia collectively cost 175 lives and more than $1 billion in losses. Such dam failures as Silver Lake Dam in Michigan in 2003 ($100 million in damages and economic losses of $1 million per day) and the Big Bay Lake Dam in Mississippi in March 2004 (100 homes destroyed) are current reminders of the potential consequences of unsafe dams.

Current State of the Nation’s Dams
The ASCE 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure graded the nation’s dams a ‘D’.1 In each successive report the number of unsafe and deficient dams as well as the needed infrastructure investment increased. The dam rehabilitation funding through the Small Watershed Rehabilitation Act of 2000 is the only national program which provides financial assistance for non-federal dams. While there is a huge national need, ASCE applauds and supports your steadfast work toward repairing these watershed dams and preventing a potential deadly dam failure.

Since 1998, the number of unsafe dams has risen by 33% to more than 3,500. While federally owned dams are in good condition, and there have been modest gains in repair, the number of dams identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired.

In the past two years, more than 67 dam incidents, including 29 dam failures, were reported to the National Performance of Dams program, which collects and archives information on dam performance as reported by state and federal regulatory agencies and dam owners. Dam incidents are such events as large floods, earthquakes or inspections that alert dam safety engineers to deficiencies that threaten the safety of a dam. Due to limited state staff, many incidents are not reported; therefore, the actual number of incidents is likely to be much greater.

There is an enormous need for funding to rehabilitate the nation’s dam. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) completed a study in 2002 estimating that $36 billion is needed to repair the nation’s aging dams.2 The study identified a $10.1 billion demand for the nation’s critical dams, those dams whose failure will cause loss of life.

Small Watershed Dams
The Watershed Program has provided enormous benefits through construction of dams throughout the United States that provide for flood control, irrigation, water supply, recreation, wildlife habitat and protection of our valuable water resources. Watershed projects are planned and implemented by local community groups who serve as project sponsors, with assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The projects are authorized and funded through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (Public Law 83-566) and the Flood Control Act of 1944 (Public Law 78-534).

There are over 11,000 dams constructed in 47 states through the very successful Watershed Program since the 1940’s. However, these dams are exceeding their intended design life (typically 50 years) with 457 currently beyond their design life and over 4,400 expected to exceed the design life in ten years. These structures, which have provided vital benefits for so many years, now threaten the lives, farmland and public infrastructure they were intended to protect.

Many watershed dams do not meet current dam safety standard practices, or state dam safety regulations – at times as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the local sponsors. Downstream development below watershed dams often occurs long after construction, dramatically changing the consequences of a dam failure to include loss of life and therefore the dam must meet more stringent safety criteria commensurate with the new predicted results of a failure. Dams constructed as “low hazard potential” (failure will not cause loss of life) which experience uncontrolled development downstream within the dam failure flood zone become “high hazard potential” (failure will cause loss of life), requiring significant rehabilitation.

In addition, advances in engineering and scientific knowledge of flooding, earthquakes and dam failures have changed the dam safety criteria, often requiring dams to withstand larger events such as floods or earthquakes which were not incorporated into the design standards 50 years ago. Therefore, many diligent, responsible and well-intentioned local watershed sponsors have watershed dams that do not meet safety criteria and are faced with the burden of necessary repairs which are far beyond their ability to fund.

When the national watershed program started in the 1940s, there were essentially no future funding mechanisms that would provide for major repair and rehabilitation as the dams reached the end of their design life or did not meet dam safety criteria. Many watershed dams were constructed before the tragic dam failures in the 1970’s that caused Congress, federal agencies and states to establish dam safety programs and design criteria. The recent dam failures in Michigan, Mississippi and the horrific levee failures in New Orleans are frightening reminders of the consequences of dam failures.

An alarming and growing number of watershed program dams, constructed with the technical and financial assistance of the Federal government through USDA, do not meet dam safety regulations and are potential failures and “unfunded liabilities.” In many cases the dams no longer provide the flood protection that the local communities rely on and assume still exists. Therefore, ASCE respectfully urges Congress to recognize the federal government’s long standing history with this program as well as the federal obligation, and accelerate the rehabilitation of the USDA watershed program dams.

The expectation of people who live below these dams and rely on flood protection benefits is that the dam is safe and that the benefits will continue. Mr. Chairman, ASCE asks you and your fellow committee members to continue your efforts on behalf of dam rehabilitation and fulfill your constituents expectations of safety.

Mr. Chairman, ASCE respectfully urges this Subcommittee to consider these recommendations which address dam safety needs of the USDA watershed program:

1. Increase the appropriation for rehabilitating the watershed dams up to the full authorization levels to accelerate needed dam rehabilitation;
2. Authorize funding to assist local communities with preparation of Emergency Action Plans;
3. Streamline the design, review and construction processes within USDA NRCS; and
4. Provide for future authorization to continue the watershed rehabilitation program beyond FY 2007.

ASCE looks forward to working with the Subcommittee staff in support of the watershed rehabilitation program.