Aging dams, reservoirs need our attention now

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Aging infrastructure is like losing weight.

You might talk about it for days, months and years. However, until a doctor tells you either lose the excess pounds or face a health crisis of life-threatening issues, you might not take action before that.

So it goes with our aging dams and reservoirs in South Dakota.

The doctor, or in this case, Mother Nature, has spoken. South Dakota News Watch, via writer Nick Lowrey, recently reported:

“The last 12 months have been the wettest in South Dakota in more than a century and as a result, dams across the state have suffered significant damage, creating the potential for flooding, loss of life, destruction of property and the need for expensive repairs.

“Across South Dakota and the Great Plains, extensive snow melt and heavy rains have eroded spillways, plugged outflows, caused leaks and led a few dams to fail completely. The wet weather has exposed weaknesses in the state’s system of dams and reservoirs that in many cases are aged and worn.”

It is a multi-million-dollar problem. But not a new problem.

Politicians have talked about the state’s aging dams and reservoirs for years. Some officials who keep an eye on dams in the state say South Dakota leaders have been responsive when it comes fixing problems.

However, those same state officials do not have a firm cost estimate on what it would take to shore up the state’s problems with aging dams and reservoirs.

That needs to change. We need firm numbers and an overall plan of action from our political leaders.

Again, it is easy to talk and not act upon a largely unseen, unthought-about problem. But this is a problem that can take lives and damage livelihoods.

It is a problem that calls for preventative action, not reactionary action.

South Dakota’s problems in this area are no different than in other states. Estimates by the Association of State Dam Safety officials peg the cost of needed maintenance for the country’s more than 87,000 non-federal dams at roughly $66 billion.

South Dakota has roughly 2,550 nationally inventoried dams. The term “inventoried dams” means they qualify for listing on the National Inventory of Dams, meaning they hold more than 50-acre feet of water — about 16.25 million gallons.

Dams that could kill people if they fail are designated as “high-hazard.” The state has 91 high-hazard dams (about half of which are maintained by state agencies and the other half by federal agencies).

Most of the dams in South Dakota were built more than 60 years ago. Dams control water for irrigation, prevent property damage and protect lives, store drinking water and create opportunities for recreation.

Such dams for recreation in South Dakota have led to more than $350 million in annual recreational fishing and boating industry.

So, there seems to be a lot of money on the line for the many whose livings are tied to that industry and dam/reservoir safety.

Most of the state’s 2,550 inventoried dams are privately owned. They serve a variety of functions, from holding livestock water to forming family fishing ponds.

But nearly all such dams are too small or don’t present enough danger to lives or property to get regular inspections from DENR, the agency responsible for state- regulated dams. Thus, where the state has 91 “high-hazard” dams, the number of private-owned “high-hazard” dams is unknown.

Private-owned dams in need of expensive repairs can be a problem. There are few, if any, dam repair assistance programs and rarely does the state order such repairs.

Meanwhile, state-owned, high-hazard dams are in pretty good shape, according to some officials. Plus, state leaders have shown a strong willingness to quickly fix problems.

The School and Public Lands has spent about $85,000 to repair three of its dams between 2017 and 2018. “Anytime we’ve presented a high-hazard dam that needs repair, the governor and legislature have provided funding,” said School and Public Lands Commissioner Ryan Brunner.

This year, Brunner said his office will spend more than $500,000 to replace the spillway on Elm Lake north of Aberdeen, adding to the roughly $1.25 million the office has spent on dam repair over the past six years.

All the money has come from special appropriations made by the state Legislature.

The Elm Lake dam project, for example, is projected to cost more than $1.5 million. The city of Aberdeen and other partners will contribute about $1 million, he said.

There are plenty other examples of dam problems in this region and across the state.

Aging dams and reservoirs are not a problem that will disappear. 

And they are not a problem we can afford to fix after it’s too late.