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What the rising age of America's dams means for the future

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Posted at 2:19 PM, May 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-27 14:19:00-04

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Ask Larry Johnson about May 14th, 2019 and he will take you back.

“I remember it so clearly," he says.

The video is hard to forget. Cameras caught the exact moment the Lake Dunlap Dam broke.

The dam broke two miles upstream from Johnson’s home.

“It was everything was brown and scorched it was a war zone," Johnson remembers.

Behind Johnson's home, what used to be the bottom of the lake now looks like a yard.

Within hours of the dam's failure, Lake Dunlap's water level dropped around 7 feet.

“Right now, we would be 8 feet underwater," he says as we stand below his boat ramp and look up to his diving board.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority in Texas blamed the 90-year-old dam's aging steel for the failure that luckily didn't kill anyone.

Johnson says he knew with the dam's age it was at risk of failing, but still couldn't believe It actually happened.

"I mean, who would?” Johnson asks.

The Lake Dunlap dam's failure is one of roughly 40 that have happened in the past decade according to U.S. Society on Dams' President and civil engineer, Del Shannon.

“It’s distressing. We have the ability to fix these things and a limited amount of resources to do that," Shannon says.

Shannon says the average age of America's 91,000 dams is 60 years old, as the dams get older they require more upkeep. 

Shannon graded our nation’s dams for the American Society of Civil Engineers' Infrastructure Report card. It comes out every four years.

While he says most of the dams that have failed were small, cases like what happened in Michigan in 2020 when two dams failed and wiped out 150 homes is why he gave our nation's dams a "D."

"I gave them a D because I’m a pretty harsh grader for one, but I don’t think any dam should fail," Shannon says.

About $3 billion of the bipartisan infrastructure law is going to dam-related projects in hopes of changing that. He says that’s a start, but more money is needed.

It will take more than $75 billion to refurbish the more than 88,000 non-federal dams across the country according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

“That’s the problem with the whole infrastructure challenge. Is that until something like this happens it’s just not real," Johnson says.

Today, construction is underway on a new dam on Lake Dunlap.

Johnson says Texas lawmakers failed to pass a bill to pay for the project so, he and his neighbors formed the Lake Dunlap Water Control and Improvement District, a government entity, that has the power to raise taxes with voter approval.

Voters in the district supported raising property taxes to pay the $40 million to pay for the new dam.

“None of us would accept no for an answer," Johnson said about finding a way to rebuild the dam.

Johnson expects the dam to be in operation summer of 2023.

When it does his water will rise to where it was three years ago and for the life that comes with it to return for years to come.

“I think it’s going to be like what it was where your grandkids startup at the back door and gallop all the way down and leap into the water," Johnson says.