Dams and Levees - Immigration and Infrastructure

By Edwin S. Rubenstein
Volume 19, Number 2 (Winter 2008-2009)
Issue theme: "The Twin Crises - Immigration and Infrastructure"

Catastrophic Midwestern floods in June 2008 drew national attention to a part of the American infrastructure that often goes unnoticed—the physical barriers that hold back water. Dam and levee failures occurred up and down the Mississippi watershed, inundating cities and cropland with water and raw sewage. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Army Corps of
Engineers, and a myriad of other state and federal agencies assessed the damage—and will presumably draft recommendations aimed at preventing a recurrence.

We have been here before.

After the last devastating floods in the Midwest 15 years ago, a committee of experts commissioned by the Clinton Administration issued a 272-page report recommending a more uniform approach to managing the Mississippi and its tributaries, including giving the Army Corps of Engineers principal responsibility for many of the levees.

The committee chairman, Gerald E. Galloway, a former brigadier general with the Corps of Engineers, says that few of the recommended changes were made. Once the floodwaters receded from the land, the infrastructure program was forgotten.1
Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the levee at Lake Pontchartrain in 2005, Congress set up a program to inventory and inspect levees. But the legislation failed to provide enough money to do this. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the “geotechnical conditions of the levees or the hydrological conditions of the areas to be protected” could cost as much as $60,000 for each mile of levee, or $100 million just for the 1,600 miles of levees that protect California’s Central Valley region.

Regarding the nation’s roughly 15,000 miles of levees, “one of the fundamental problems is that there is a lack of good information about where all the levees are and what level of protection they are supposed to provide,” noted Mark Ogden, president of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), in 2007.2

There is no silver bullet. Even if the post-Katrina legislation had been fully funded and complied with, there still would have been flooding in 2008—but with considerably less damage, according to Dr. Galloway.


Whose Dam Responsibility?

It would be unthinkable for a state to build its highways without regard to where neighboring states were building theirs. To prevent this, the entire interstate highway system is owned and managed by the federal government. Similarly, mass transit systems are usually run by city governments, and electricity generation in a city or metropolitan area is usually the responsibility of one private, albeit
publicly regulated, utility.

By contrast, responsibility for the nation’s dams and levees is spread willy-nilly across many entities. Of the more than 83,000 dams listed in the Army Corps of Engineer’s National Inventory of Dams (NID), nearly 56 percent are privately owned. Some are owned by state or local governments or private utilities, and fewer than 5 percent are owned by the federal government—although the federal share includes high-profile structures such as the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams.3

A fairly short stretch of river might have dams and levees built and operated by private individuals, corporations, towns, or other governmental entities. Some are inspected and certified by federal authorities as meeting their standards, while others fall through the cracks—figuratively and literally.

An estimated 86 percent of NID dams are monitored by state regulatory programs, programs that are often understaffed and underfunded. In some states, each full-time dam safety official must monitor more than 1,000 structures. Alabama, the only state without a dam safety program, does not have a single full-time employee dedicated to dam safety regulation, despite the fact that the state has more than 2,000 dams on the NID list, ASDSO data indicate.

Many states are either unwilling or unable to force dam owners to make needed repairs. In Indiana, for example, four dams were damaged by the 2008 floods. Although the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had repeatedly warned their owners —in some cases for more than 10 years—that the structures were deficient, no fines or other sanctions were imposed. DNR officials say half of the state’s 1,100 dams need work. Indiana initiated legal action against dam owners only 15 to 20 times in the past five years, a DNR spokesman says.4

Similar derelictions of responsibility have been reported in other states.

At the same time, state dam safety budgets and federal grants have been declining. In May 2007, an ASDSO spokesman testified that funding for state assistance grants has “been creeping downward for the past five years.” One particularly dramatic example: the 12 percent drop in a single year—2003 to 2004—from approximately $33 million to approximately $29 million.5

A coordinated flood control system is essential. Building up a levee over one stretch of waterway pushes more water to the opposite shore and downstream, with potentially damaging consequences. While the Upper Midwest has wrestled with a hodge-podge of dams and levees for decades, the lower portions of the Mississippi have a more standardized system of protection.

The north-south flood control gap is rooted in history. After an enormous flood in 1927, the southern portion of the river was declared part of a flood control project area and ordered to have levees designed and inspected by the Corps of Engineers. That flood spared the Upper Mississippi, and—given the enormous cost of levee building—left those in the north out of the equation. People there kept building on their own. Their descendants now suffer the consequences.

The Condition of U.S. Dams

More than 3,200 dams were classified as “unsafe” in 2007—meaning that their deficiencies leave them more susceptible to failure. This figure has increased by as much as 80 percent since 1998, according to a spokesman of the ASDSO. Moreover, the distribution of unsafe dams is skewed toward several states—Ohio has 825, Pennsylvania 325, and New Jersey 193. The actual number of unsafe dams is potentially much higher, because some states do not report statistics on such dams.6

In its latest infrastructure Report Card, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assigns a grade of D to dams, noting that: “While federally owned dams are in good condition, and there have been modest gains in repair, the number of identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired.”

Age is a factor. At present, an estimated 30 percent of NID structures have reached their design life of 50 years; within a decade, 1,700 more NID structures will surpass that 50-year mark, according to the 2005 Congressional Research Service report. While older federal dams are well maintained, structures regulated by states and localities are often allowed to deteriorate until disaster strikes.

It is estimated that $10.1 billion is needed over the next 12 years to address structural deficiencies in all critical non-federal dams—dams that pose a direct risk to human life should they fail.7 In November, the House passed the Dam Rehabilitation and Repair Act of 2007. The legislation would provide a little more than $200 million over five years for the repair, rehabilitation, or removal of publicly owned dams that are structurally deficient. This is only a fraction of what is needed to fix all unsafe dams in the nation.

ASCE puts an upbeat spin on it:

Although the measure represents only a “modest amount of money” toward the billions of dollars needed to fix all unsafe dams in the nation, it will be a good first step—if it becomes law—in creating a dedicated funding source for dam safety similar to that in other federal infrastructure funding programs.8

Will the 2008 floods loosen Congressional purse strings? Stay tuned.

Immigration and Dams: California

California is not the Midwest. The state’s extensive network of dams was built to cope with too little, rather than too much, water. But the expense and potential dangers posed by dams are as daunting.

The Golden State has long struggled with two basic—and conflicting—facts. More than 70 percent of its surface water flow occurs in the northern third of the state, but the majority of its population lives in its more arid central and southern regions. Compounding the problem, the state’s rainfall tends to occur in the winter; summers are usually dry. Ensuring an adequate, year-round water supply for the state’s expanding population has spurred numerous efforts to convey water long distances.

The first north-south water system, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, was completed in 1913. In 1941, the Colorado River Aqueduct began lifting water and transporting it across 242 miles of desert to southern California. In 1973, the biggest water project of them all, dubbed the California State Water Project, was completed. At a cost of more than $2 billion, it was the largest public works project ever undertaken by a single state.

Thanks to immigration, the demand for water now exceeds the California State Water Project’s capacity. Governor Schwarzenegger’s “solution” is to build more dams and reservoirs. In particular, the Guv is pitching a $6 billion reservoir at a location called Sites in the Antelope Valley near Sacramento. Others claim that there will not be enough surplus water to fill the new dam. Moreover, the dam would contribute adversely to global climate change. Although energy would be produced as water is released, since water must be pumped uphill to it, Sites would end up consuming more energy than it makes. Nearly one-fifth of California’s electricity already is used to collect, store, and transport water.

There is an alternative: Reduce per-capita water usage. But this would require terminating water subsidies to corporate agriculture—something the governor would never support. His aversion to immigration controls on seasonal farm workers is similarly designed to coddle big agriculture.

In fact, the entire Sites project is an exercise in special-interest legislation. Big corporations and construction companies benefit, while taxpayers lose their shirts. No wonder that the California State Department of Water Resources, the state agency that has been running the numbers on the Site project for the past seven years, has not released a feasibility study. It simply does not like the results.

Even if no new dams were constructed, immigration will increase the number of California dams that pose a safety hazard. That is because the urban sprawl and development that accompanies it bring homes and businesses closer to dams built in what were once remote locations. Dam safety officials refer to the situation as “hazard creep.”

One thing is certain: Absent a decline in immigration, the water supply infrastructure in southern California will be increasingly inadequate and dangerous.

Dams at the Southern Border?

For most of its length, the Rio Grande is a narrow, unimpressive river—completely dry for parts of year along much of its length. In a word, it is not a candidate for new dam infrastructure. But the flow of illegal immigrants over its banks has been large enough to get the locals thinking about it.

In 2007, a group of mayors from Texas border towns called for sections of the river to be dammed as a deterrent to illegal immigrants.9 The mayors want to deepen and widen the natural border with Mexico through a series of low dams—making it too hazardous to cross. They say the dams, together with beefed-up border patrols and electronic surveillance, would be much more cost-effective than a fence.

The Bush Administration’s response has been to start construction of hundreds of miles of security fence along the border. It is not clear whether anyone in Washington, D.C., compared the cost/benefit ratios of the two proposals.

When Immigrants Built Dams:

New York State

For the first 200 years of its existence, New York City relied on local sources for its water. Residents drew water from private wells or from a large Manhattan pond called the Collect. The Hudson and East rivers were too brackish to be used for drinking water. As the city’s population grew, the quality of well water deteriorated.

By the 1830s, it became clear that the city could never obtain sufficient drinking water from sources in Manhattan alone. A plan to draw water from the Croton River, a tributary of the Hudson, was approved. By 1842, the Croton dam and 41 miles of what became known as the Croton Aqueduct were successfully transporting water from upstate to the city.10

Within decades, the demand for water exceeded the system’s maximum for safe operations. A new Croton aqueduct and dam was constructed, and the city went on to tap even more distant watersheds. The dam could not have been constructed without the masonry and artistic skills of Italian immigrants—many of whom were brought over specifically for that purpose.

The great achievement of Italian manual labor in Westchester is the New Croton Dam, in Cortlandt. It was started in 1892 and was regarded at the time of its completion, in 1907, as the eighth wonder of the world. By any standards, it is an impressive structure: huge blocks of granite taken from nearby quarries rise in a tapering curve to a height of 290 feet on a foundation sunk a 124 feet below the riverbed. A decorative corniced border runs along the top layer of blocks between two of the three buttresses and under the concrete road where motorists can get out, lean on the silver-painted guardrail, and take in the view.

The great dam spans 2,500 feet in all, looming over the Croton Gorge and a small county park with scattered maples and evergreens far below. It holds back 32 billion gallons, whose overflow, released gradually over a series of steps into a thousand-foot spillway, runs under a huge steel arch and then comes thundering down into the gorge in three stages, with natural outcroppings of rock to break its fall, throwing up mist, rainbows, and a fresh organic smell.11

The New Croton Dam story is instructive—both as to the changed esthetics of public infrastructure and the changed quality of U.S. immigrants. ■


1. Monica Davey, “Call For Change Ignored, Levees Remain Patchy ,” New York Times, June 22, 2008, p. 1.

2. American Society of Civil Engineers, “The Infrastructure Crisis,” Civil Engineering Magazine, January 2008.

3. Congressional Research Service, Aging Infrastructure: Dam Safety, September 2005.

4. Heather Gillers, “State: Dams Were Faulty,” Indianapolis Star, June 16, 2008, p.1.

5. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dam Safety and Security in the United States : A Progress Report on the National Dam Safety Program, September 2006.

6. American Society of Civil Engineers, “The Infrastructure Crisis,” Civil Engineering Magazine, January 2008.

7. American Society of Civil Engineers, 2005 Report Card.

8. American Society of Civil Engineers, January 2008.

9. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7093779.stm.

10. American Society of Civil Engineers, Civil Engineering, November/December 2002.

11. New Yorker Magazine, November 13, 1978.

About the author

Edwin S. Rubenstein, president of ESR Research, economic consultants, has 25 years of experience as a business researcher, financial analyst, and economics journalist. Mr. Rubenstein joined the Hudson Institute, a public policy think tank headquartered in Indianapolis, and served as director of research from  1997-2002. While at Hudson he wrote proposals and conducted research on a wide array of topics, including workforce development, the impact of AIDS on South Africa's labor force, Boston's "Big Dig," the economic impact of transportation infrastructure, and the future of the private water industry in the United States.

As a journalist, Mr. Rubenstein was a contributing editor at Forbes Magazine and economics editor at National Review, where his "Right Data" column was featured for more than a decade. His televised appearances include Firing Line, Bill Moyers, McNeil-Lehrer, CNBC, and Debates-Debates. He is the author of two books: From the Empire State to the Vampire State: New York in a Downward Transition (with Herbert London) and The Right Data.

Mr. Rubenstein also served as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he was principal investigator in the institute's ongoing analysis of New York state's budget and tax structure. He published a newsletter devoted to economic statistics and contributed regularly to The City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's quarterly publication.

From 1980 to 1986 he was senior economist at W.R. Grace & Co., where he directed studies of government waste and inefficiency for the Grace Commission.

From 1978 to 1980 he was a municipal bond analyst for Moody's Investors Service, where he was also editor of the Bond Survey, a weekly review of the municipal bond market. He served as senior quantitative analyst for the Office of the Mayor of New York City from 1973 to 1978. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Investor's Business Daily, and Newsday. He is a regular contributor to the Social Contract and VDARE.com.

Mr. Rubenstein has a B.A. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.A. in public finance from Columbia University.