Could Houston face Katrina-like devastation from outdated dams?

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HOUSTON, TX-- In Houston, when it rains, it pours. But we have safety measures in place to help cut down on flooding-- the Addicks and Barker dams. They collect rainwaters in the upper watershed of Buffalo Bayou, and that water is released down Buffalo Bayou at controlled rates to reduce downstream flooding.

The problem is the dams are old. More than 70 years old. Most infrastructure projects across the nation are built with a 50-year life expectancy. That led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who oversees the dams and reservoirs, to rate them "extremely high risk" back in 2009.

Vice magazine went one step further earlier this year, saying they are "on the verge of collapse." So are we in danger of Katrina-like devastation?

Richard Long, who works with the Army Corps as natural resource manager, says no. "These projects are in no way, form or fashion on the level of where there's imminent danger of failure," he assures us. "In the 70-year history of Addicks and Barker reservoirs, neither reservoir has been over 50% capacity of the dams."

The "extremely high risk" rating was imparted, Long says, based on the results of a failure if one were to occur and the potential for a failure.

The latter, he says, is obvious, "Well, of course, our results of a failure here would be catastrophic because the city of Houston is downstream." It would most likely lead to flooding the likes of which Houston hasn't seen since 1929 and 1935. That's when extreme downpours left downtown underwater.

While the Corps' rating has led to some confusion, it's also had some benefits. "That puts us on top of the money heap to get money for the repair of these facilities," Long explains, "and with money being tight in Washington as it is these days, it's important that we get those funds as rapidly as we can." Plans are underway to start construction this year on new water control structures at both dams that will utilize modern materials and construction techniques.

"We're looking at a cost of doing that at somewhere between 75 and 100 million dollars," Long says. That sounds like a lot of cash until you consider this: over the history of the Addicks and Barker projects, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates they have saved over $8 billion in flood damage prevented downstream.

For more on this dam business, check out this month's Houstonia.