North Carolina has quietly been beefing up the agency that oversees dams in the state, and with good reason.
The state ranks No. 2 in the country in the number of dams in risky condition in places where a failure could kill someone, or in some cases, a lot of people.
A recent Associated Press investigation found 168 dams in North Carolina are both in poor or unsatisfactory condition and positioned so that they threaten human life. Among 44 states and Puerto Rico that provided information to the AP, only Georgia was worse than North Carolina.
Of course, dam safety isn’t a competition. Even one dam that’s in bad shape and that could kill people if it fails is something to worry about — and do something about. But the AP’s survey shows just how serious this threat is here.
In some cases, the problem is just wear and tear, the strains that will develop with age, and state inspections and regulations should help keep things in hand.
But dam failure is yet another area in which global warming is proving to be a game changer. Climate change doesn’t mean just a slow but steady increase in average temperatures or record-breaking highs in summer. It also means the weather is more unpredictable, and that hurricanes and other rainstorms are more intense.
More intense storms mean that some dams that were considered adequate when they were built may not be up to the challenge of today’s weather, with record-breaking rainfalls and rains that last for days. This is not just a prediction; it’s already happening. During the 12-month period that started in October 2015, 83 state-regulated dams failed in North and South Carolina.
So it makes sense to put more money and effort into checking on the state’s dams and making sure needed repairs get done.
That job falls to a little known agency, the N.C. Dam Safety Program in the Department of Environmental Quality. Recently, the state has increased the dam-safety budget by two-thirds, and there are now 20 full-time employees.
Their task is to make sure more than 3,100 dams are safe.
That’s a challenge. Regulations are only as effective as their enforcement. It takes time to inspect all the dams. Then it takes more time to make sure whoever owns a dam makes any necessary repairs.
Things get more complicated because many dams in the state aren’t owned by a big utility or government agency but by private individuals. Sometimes those people aren’t very cooperative about following regulations. Some don’t bother to file reports about how a break in the dam would affect people downstream, and what could be done if that happens.
Sometimes, it’s not even clear who’s responsible for making any needed repairs to a dam. That was the case with a dam in Fayetteville that also carried a road to a private community. Despite repeated deficiency notices from the state, no repairs had been made. The dam failed when Hurricane Matthew dumped as much as 15 inches of rain in 2016.
So the state may need to invest even more money in enforcement of its dam safety regulations. As climate change plays a larger role, the state may also need to consider whether current regulations are tough enough. Dam safety is, literally, a matter of life and death.