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As Midwest Dams Reach End Of Life, Soaked States Can't Handle Repair Costs

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. has more than 11,000 flood control dams. Many were built more than half a century ago, and delayed maintenance is starting to catch up with them. The problem is particularly acute in Oklahoma, which has more than 2000 dams and which, this year, has record rainfall. Logan Layden of StateImpact Oklahoma reports.

LOGAN LAYDEN, BYLINE: Catastrophic flooding used to be part of life in Oklahoma.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Red River on a rampage - already the perpetrator of $25 million damage, the river is fattened by new rainstorms.

LAYDEN: Ask anyone who was around in the late 1950s, like Allen Hensley, who grew up in south-central Oklahoma.

ALLEN HENSLEY: OK, when my dad took me down and showed me Rock Creek when I was a boy and a beautiful corn crop. And the next day, it was water. It was flooded.

LAYDEN: Rain beats down as he stands next to the so-called Wildhorse 80 Dam. This waterlogged earthen hill has been trying to hold back a lot of water since April.

HENSLEY: But it didn't get out on our place.

ROBERT HATHORNE: Erosion like this can spread incredibly quickly.

LAYDEN: That's Robert Hathorne with the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. He and a colleague, Greg Lyons, peer into a deep gash in the spillway. Lyons says swirling water has displaced soil that's usually tightly packed with wildflowers and weeds.

GREG LYONS: Six- to eight-foot deep, probably 200-foot long, 35-foot wide.

LAYDEN: This state team is here to inspect the dam, which holds back what amounts to a farm pond in an overgrown field well off the beaten path.

HATHORNE: All right - not the easiest location to get to here.

LAYDEN: This is one of 146 dams that Lyons has to inspect and maintain. The state Conservation Commission only has nine people to look after more than 2000 flood control dams, more than any other state.

LYONS: I could use help, yes. I do my inspections. I try to do my mowing, spraying, tree and brush removal. It's a lot on one person.

LAYDEN: Historically, cycles of intense drought followed by devastating floods across the Great Plains are why these dams began to be built about 60 years ago. The construction didn't take long. At the peak, a dam a day was finished. The federal government helped pay for the construction but then turned them over to the states. Oklahoma Conservation Programs director Tammy Sawatzky says now they're reaching the end of their life spans and need constant maintenance. There's just one problem.

TAMMY SAWATZKY: Money. Money.

LAYDEN: It's a roughly $19 billion problem across the country and too much for states like Oklahoma to handle, especially after years of budget cuts. Jason Weller with the Federal Natural Resources Conservation Service says most people don't realize the importance of dams.

JASON WELLER: And it's just something that's difficult 'cause people use and can benefit directly from, on a daily basis, a highway or freeway. They get it, and they understand its need for commerce. But a lot of times, these structures around the country really stand like silent sentinels. You don't know they're even there.

LAYDEN: Weller says what's happening in Oklahoma needs to be part of a much broader and important discussion about the nation's needs.

WELLER: Much like with highways and airports and railways and other transportation infrastructure, flood protection is also, I think, warrants part of that national dialogue and infrastructure.

LAYDEN: With so many competing funding priorities in the United States and little interest in new spending, officials here are struggling just to maintain the dams. Without lots of federal money, updating them all isn't even a possibility. For NPR News, I'm Logan Layden in Norman, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.