Could intense storms push America’s failing dams to the brink?

The Shasta Dam is located in Northern California. Photo by Shutterstock.

Thousands are dead and at least 10,000 more are missing in eastern Libya after a storm this week caused two dams in the area to collapse. Climate change is increasing the severity of storms and stressing aging infrastructure that’s meant to hold back catastrophe. 

In the U.S., dams are rapidly aging, with more than 70% of them turning at least half a century old by 2030, says Hiba Baroud, a professor of civil engineering at Vanderbilt University. 

Many of these dams serve critical purposes, such as protecting nearby communities from floods. But due to age and lack of maintenance, Baroud says more than 2000 of them are considered “high-hazard potential” dams. That means if they fail, they could cause death and/or serious property damage.

The latest infrastructure legislation allots nearly $600 million to fix high-hazard dams, but Baroud says it's not enough to fully address the problem. So now, it’s critical to identify dams that are more vulnerable to failure and how they could impact surrounding residents.  

“Is this area going to see more rainfall? Has the dam been upgraded or maintained properly? Who lives around the dam? Are there other critical infrastructure that rely on the dam? With Libya, there was another dam that failed as a result of the first dam failure. Are there other critical infrastructure around that might fail as a result of that dam failure? All these aspects need to be considered comprehensively to determine the risk of the dam,” Baroud says. 



  • Hiba Baroud - professor of civil engineering at Vanderbilt University