The first and last priority of any infrastructure system is to assure public safety. From barricades on our highways to weight limits on our bridges, safety is paramount for Alabama s families and businesses. Shockingly, Alabama continues to be the only state in the country without a state dam safety program. What this means is that Alabama is the only state in the country that does not know how many dams it actually has, much less their condition and maintenance needs. Of the other 49 states, each has an organized inspection program for assuring public safety. Alabama s position is unacceptable for our state and unacceptable for Alabama s security, public safety, and economy.
Last week, State House Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin introduced House Bill 610, the first proposed dam safety law in Alabama in years. While this is an encouraging sign, this is no victory. Since the legislative session ends next week, there is no chance this bill will actually come law anytime soon. Why does such a common sense law making our dams safe and secure have no chance of passing?
Alabama s dams are a critical part of our everyday life. From our farmers to our energy supply, the use and reliance on Alabama s dams is essential to how our communities thrive and grow. Major dam owners like the US Army Corp of Engineers and Alabama Power recognize the immense costs a dam failure can have on a community, and employ dedicated dam safety professionals. Yet hundreds of other dams in Alabama do not receive routine inspections or maintenance. HB 610 proposes a dam safety program to inventory, inspect, and ensure new dams are properly constructed. This common sense bill includes specific exemptions for small dams to avoid unnecessary impact to farmers and other owners.
Many states did not enact legislation for dam safety until loss of life and significant property damage occurred. Dam failures have occurred in Alabama, and many more near failures have occurred than anyone can account for. We are fortunate to have the opportunity to act before a major disaster occurs. We should learn from the experiences of other states and act swiftly to protect our citizens as well as our economy.
The state of Alabama cannot be an exception when it comes to building a first-class infrastructure system. The fact that we do not even know where all of Alabama s dams are is appalling. Alabama needs a dam safety program now. While passage is unlikely for this legislative session, we must urge our elected officials to make this reasonable measure an immediate priority.
Ben Gallagher works at the Birmingham Branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
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