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KUNR Public Radio is a proud partner in the Mountain West News Bureau, a partnership of public media stations that serve Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. The mission is to tell stories about the people, places and issues of the Mountain West.

New book and interactive map spotlight the threat of aging dams in the West

An aerial view of Hoover Dam and the surrounding desert landscape.
Carol M. Highsmith
Library of Congress
Hoover Dam, a hydropower dam straddling the border of Nevada and Arizona, has “high hazard potential” for people living downstream if it fails, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A new interactive story map shows many of the nation’s dams are aging. That poses a threat to downstream communities, including dozens in the Mountain West.

In the United States, there are more than 91,000 dams across waterways. These structures are used for things like recreation opportunities, irrigation and hydropower, according to the story map, which was created from an analysis sponsored by Patagonia and accompanies a newly published book.

Some dams stand hundreds of feet high and store billions of gallons of water, like Hoover Dam, a hydropower dam straddling the border of Nevada and Arizona. Built in 1935 on the Colorado River, the dam is 730 feet tall, 1,244 feet long, and generates power to serve more than 1.3 million people in the West.

But the concrete structure, which has a maximum storage capacity of 30.2 million acre-feet of water, is a dam that has “high hazard potential” for people living downstream if it fails, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Dams have a potential to do damage on a scale that probably is seen nowhere else except for in major natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes or warfare,” said Steven Hawley, who wrote the new Patagonia-published book Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, which was released in tandem with the interactive story map.

The book chronicles the 1976 failure of the Teton Dam near Rexburg, Idaho, which collapsed due to a “peculiar mix of federal government agency hubris and a major miscalculation about the porous nature of soil,” as Hawley wrote in Cracked. The event caused a man-made flood that killed 11 people, drowned 13,000 cows, did at least $400 million worth of damage in a weekend, and devastated multiple nearby towns.

In the Mountain West, other examples of large dams that have “high hazard potential” if they failed include: Arrowrock Dam east of Boise, Idaho; Dillon Dam west of Denver, Colo.; Buffalo Bill Dam in northwestern Wyoming; Navajo Dam in northwestern New Mexico; Flaming Gorge Dam in northeastern Utah; and Fort Peck Dam in northeastern Montana.

Hawley said many dams across the country are approaching the end of their useful lives, noting that concrete has a lifespan of about 60 years.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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