Dams and Levees: Introduction

October 23, 2013

This special issue of the WatchDog focuses on the transparency of safety information related to dams, levees, impoundments, and related water-control structures. Federal and state agencies are doing a poor job of informing the public about the hazards that dams and levees sometimes pose to life and property. Better public understanding and awareness of dam safety is needed for prevention and protection actions to go forward.

Ripe for challenge is the claim that unsafe dams must be hidden from public view because disclosure would help terrorists. That information has long been in the public domain, and preventing its disclosure only protects bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests — not the public. The Corps of Engineers backed down from such a claim in 2009 after saying terrorists might attack shaky coal-ash dams like the one that failed in 2008 at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant.

It seems as though government agencies may think they can distract or fool the public with terrorist scares. There haven't been any such foreign attacks on U.S. dams that we know of. Far more worrisome, factual, common, and fatal have been actual dam-failure disasters caused by poor engineering, shoddy construction, poor geological information, human error, neglected maintenance,  cost-cutting, lack of inspection, political pressures, government corruption, captive regulators, ice floes, bad weather, mud slides, and flooding. And today, earthquakes are increasingly a concern.

For environmental journalists, the subject of dams, levees, impoundments, and other water-control structures offers a goldmine of great story possibilities. These are stories that have not been covered much in the past decade, and stories that fit well at the local, state, or regional level.

Of course, dam safety is a critical and high-profile issue. Beyond that, though, there are many other environmental and energy issues. They include ecosystem impacts, fish migration, hydropower, thermal power plant cooling, shipping, recreational and fishing lakes, nutrient pollution and oxygen levels, sediment regimes, flood control, drinking water supply, industrial water supply, agricultural irrigation, and coal ash and coal slurry (and related pollution and safety issues), to mention some of the biggest.

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