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One dam thing after another

The crisis at the Oroville Dam and the evacuation of 200,000 people have focused attention, at least briefly, on the subject of dams in the U.S., and their ability to continue to function. There are thousands of large and small dams across the country, and many of them are at or beyond their designed life expectancy.

Most are not high-profile dams like Oroville or Hoover that provide water, power and flood control for significant portions of the population. Ironically, these dams are typically actively maintained. Oroville is a danger because of its size and the damage a failure could leave behind, but there are 84,000 dams in the U.S., and many are small and were often built away from population centers.

However, as the population has grown, many of these dams now threaten more people. They are an average of 52 years old and many receive little maintenance. In Minnesota, there are 47 high hazard dams. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's dams a grade of D and estimates just to repair the high-risk dams would cost $21 billion.

For property owners, these dams present two risks. If you have a private dam on your property, there could be liability issues should it ever fail. If you live below any of these dams, your property could be subject to damage and you may not even realize the dam exists, and you may lack flood insurance to deal with damage were it to occur.

Oroville also highlights how increasing weather volatility can lurch from drought to fears of catastrophic dam failures within a few months. These events are likely to increase in frequency and could leave you with a significant potential for insurance disputes over coverage.

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