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Teton Dam Broken

Imagine a scene from a movie. Above the little town the dam looms in the pouring rain. Ominous thunder crackles through the clouds and we see waves lapping over the top of the earth structure, more and more water  pours overtop the dam. Cut to another shot, some overworked public service employee (who has had his collective bargaining rights removed but stays on the job out of loyalty to the public) speaks into a cell phone “I tell ya Dan, this dam can’t last! You have to get the governor on the horn and order an evacuation.”

A particularly large flash of lightning illuminates the dam above him, and he see the edifice crumbling and millions of gallons of water starting to pour out toward the unsuspecting town. With his last breath he says “I warned them we had to repair it! I warned them, why wouldn’t they listen?”

"Originally posted at"

Okay, I am not a screen writer and that dialogue is more suited for the SyFy (why the hell did they change their name?)  channel anyway, but it illustrates a point that we should all be aware of, namely that like all the other aging infrastructure in the United States there are more than 4,000 dams that are considered susceptible to failure.

While we hear about the occasional bridge collapse with its attended loss of life, that is nothing compared to what would happen if one or more of the 12 dams that are rated as most server (a combination of likelihood of failure and magnitude of consequence if they did) failed.

In the New York Times article about this today they give the example of the Lake Isabella Dam which is above Bakersfield CA. If this dam failed it would flood the city with a lake 30 feet deep. That would happen in a very short period of time, measured in minutes not hours or days. 180 billion (as in thousand million) gallons of water would slam down the canyon and hammer the city of 340,000. In a little less than seven hours 2/3 of the city would be underwater. While there would be a good chance to get many of the residents out it is unlikely that every one would be able to evacuate.

It would be a disaster on the scale of the levies failing in New Orleans, but where parts of that city were saved by being on higher ground, nothing in Bakersfield would be exempt for the inundation.

There are 85,000 dams in the United States, and only 4,400 are considered in danger of failure, but that is still enough to put millions of people in danger and risk hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage. You might think that given the huge potential for destruction this would be a burning issue, but you’d be forgetting that we’ve had 30 years of Republicans insisting that the rich pay too much in taxes at both the state and local level and so projects like dam repair and rehabilitation have gone wanting.

After all, that dam has stood for generations, what could go wrong with it? Actually a lot. It is nearly ninety years old, it is built of earth and the secondary dam sits on an active earthquake fault. That means it dose not have enough of the safety features we build into modern earthen dams, it’s spill way is too small of the potential volume of water the lake could capture in a bad flood season and if there is an earthquake the soil the second wall sits on is the type that can basically turn to a non-Euclidean slurry. All of which means Bakersfield is sitting under a time bomb.

Of course it can all be fixed. For a mere 500 million the a third wall can be put in place, a bigger spill way can be blasted into the cannon and a better water control program can be put into place. But that is the rub isn’t it?

With Republicans in the House being willing to cut on all kinds of projects instead of raising taxes to cover our revenue shortfalls is there anyone with any confidence that we will spend that half billion to assure the survival of Bakersfield? After all the Army Corps of Engineers say that the chance of failure is very small. Of course that is what they said about the levies in New Orleans too.

The other thing about all of this that gets right up my nose is the short sightedness of it all. We have a massive jobs deficit in this country. One of the very best ways to fix that is construction projects. Projects like that don’t just put the workers to work; they require heavy equipment, which puts factories to work. The heavy equipment requires maintenance which puts technicians to work. The projects require materials, which put quarries and mines to work, they require engineering and surveying, which puts more people to work. All these people will then spend their money and that gives other businesses opportunities.

The total cost of rehabbing and repairing all the dams in the United States is estimated at 51 billion dollars. Now that is a not inconsequential number, but it is just the cost of 6 months in Afghanistan. No one in the Congress blinks at the idea of spending that money to try to hammer the Taliban in a war we can’t win without going into Pakistan, but when you talk about putting American citizens back to work and at the same time safe-guarding millions of lives, well they will tell you “we’re broke! We gave the money to millionaires and billionaires!”

This is one of the aspects of the Republican agenda of national destruction that we have to really point out time and again. It is not just that they are willing to slash spending on social programs to keep unfair tax breaks for the wealthy; they are unwilling to recognize what an entire generation of deferred infrastructure investment means. The United States can’t compete globally if we don’t have the needed infrastructure to make it work.

If the facts of the Lake Isabella Dam were more widely know, what business would relocate to Bakersfield? What insurance company would give them an affordable policy? Who would want to live in a city that might one day be washed away by the very dam that keeps it from flooding every spring?

Chalk it up to callousness, but I have zero faith that this dam or its 319 other “unsafe dams” (an official designation) will get the money they need to prevent a disaster. After some place like Bakersfield is destroyed, after 10,000 or more Americans are dead and  the economics of region are severely wounded we’ll hear the cry of all Conservatives “No one could have predicted this!” when in fact it will have been predicted and warned about for decades, just like New Orleans.

It is time to stop talking about deficit reduction and start to talk about unemployment reduction. When the economy is humming from construction of high speed rail, from bridge and dam repair and the like, then we can talk about paying back our borrowing (and talk about doing it the right way by increasing taxes on the wealthy and ending corporate loopholes and subsidies)  but not while we are in a crisis and live in danger of the failure of our own infrastructure.

The floor (and perhaps the flood) is yours.

Originally posted to Something the Dog Said on Wed Feb 23, 2011 at 06:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Pink Clubhouse, The Amateur Left, SciTech, and Team DFH.

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