Colorado Dams at Risk Due to Climate Change
We all know that the results of climate change have been creating physical repercussions for many years. But Colorado’s got its own set of implications due to the shifting climate, ones that could have very real and sudden impacts on those of us who live here.
Thanks to the planet’s warming temperatures, Colorado’s been experiencing weather patterns irregular from those we’ve gotten in the past, which have the potential to severely affect the dams controlling our reservoirs and waterways. In fact, according to the Denver Post, the increased frequency of storms and floods puts Colorado’s 1,737 dams at greater risk of erosion and collapse.
This is especially true for our older dam structures, some of which were constructed over 100 years ago. But even for our younger dams, climate change presents severe problems due to the data they were built from. Many, if not all of our current structures are based off of weather research that was compiled before 1980, making them outdated and less equipped to cope with the results of rising temperatures. “In the past, we assumed a stationary climate,” says Bill McCormick, a Colorado dam safety director and newly-elected president of the National Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “The methods that we used to determine rainfall were all backward-looking, at historic storms. Now it doesn’t seem that is the smartest way to do it anymore.”
Due to global climate change, temperatures across the state are predicted to rise by 2 degrees before 2070, creating more moisture in our naturally arid climate. This increases the likelihood that we will experience heavier rainfalls and more flooding, putting dams and spillways at greater risk of rupturing.
“We’ve definitely been seeing more severe [weather] events. We didn’t used to get these types of storms,” James Phelps, a public works director in Breckenridge said. “The weather patterns are more severe, more staccato than they used to be. They are not as predictable as they once were.”
Even worse, some of Colorado’s dams are already deteriorating, and could do so at an increased rate due to the severe weather.
This is particularly concerning given that of the number of dams in Colorado, 432 of them are high-hazard, meaning that they’re built by populated areas. If these structures were to fail, they would likely cause multiple deaths. Between Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland, we have over 20 dams that would be deemed ‘high-hazard,’ including the ones at Horsetooth Reservoir.
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Luckily, none of the dams in Northern Colorado are already known to be deficient, and state officials have paired with climate scientists to improve dam safety assessment measures in light of expected climate impacts. Even some of our oldest dams, such as the one by Warren Lake and rings in at 137 years old, does not currently pose a significant risk to the surrounding community.
But there are 27 “unsatisfactory” high-hazard structures throughout Colorado, many of which are clustered around Denver. These dams are required to house less water than their full capacity in order to incentivize repairs. In the meantime, officials are working to implement new rules that require stronger designs, which will take effect on Jan. 1.
If you'd like to see if there are any high-hazard dams in your area and whether they're currently operating under forced water restrictions or not, click here.