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Unmaintained dams need attention, too

About 11,000 people were forced to leave their Central Michigan homes last week, when two large dams failed. No lives were lost, in part, because the dams’ imminent failure had been anticipated for several days as a result of heavy rainfall.

In fact, concern about the dams dates back some time. Federal regulators warned of problems at one, used to generate hydroelectric power, in 1999. Two years ago, the dam’s license to operate was revoked.

If all this seems familiar, it is. Just last fall, The Associated Press reported 1,688 dams in the United States, all classified as high-risk, were determined by state and federal regulators to be in poor or unsatisfactory condition. During the past four decades, “about 1,000 dams have failed … killing 34 people,” the AP reported in November.

Many of the dams in question are old, some dating back more than a century. A substantial number use earthen dams to hold back impoundments of water.

Regulators emphasize that the high-risk category does not necessarily mean dam failure could cause loss of life. In many states, it signifies only that areas below dams are inhabited, sometimes only by a few homes.

Still, as what happened in Michigan illustrates, dam failures can be catastrophic to large numbers of people.

For now, most Americans are preoccupied with the danger from COVID-19. It appears the death toll from the disease will top 100,000 in the United States. But the ongoing threat from old, badly maintained dams needs to receive more attention, too.

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