Troubles in a Dammed Nation

Andy Revkin
2 min readFeb 23, 2017


The Times has produced an excellent visual/story package on America’s aging dams, prompted by California’s close scrape as relentless rain from a series of atmospheric rivers strained the Oroville Dam and spillway.

Here’s one factoid:

By 2020, 70 percent of the dams in the United States will be more than 50 years old, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

“It’s not like an expiration date for your milk, but the components that make up that dam do have a lifespan.” said Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

The piece focuses on safety and doesn’t touch on the environmental issues in holding back so much water (and sediment), but then again the film “DamNation” did a fine job on that front.

The Times package recalled for me a remarkable visualization of two centuries of damming of American rivers, provided to me years ago by Prof. James P.M. Syvitski of the University of Colorado, a longtime student of sediment flows in the Anthropocene, this emerging span of intertwined planetary and human history.

The Times piece focuses on the lagging investment in maintenance of dams, but closes by mentioning the best solution in some cases is liberating the rivers, as American Rivers, and the film DamNation, have advocated.

Nationwide, 1,384 dams had been removed from 1912 through 2016, according to the nonprofit American Rivers. A majority of those dams were removed within the last two decades, with 72 removed in 2016.

Of course, others are hoping that America’s push for clean energy can include retrofitting older dams for power generation.



Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books, songs