BOISE – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has upgraded the safety rating of a major Columbia Basin dam, but there haven’t been any major repairs or changes to the structure itself.
Instead, corps spokesman Bruce Henrickson said Tuesday, the federal agency decided to change the rating of Dworshak Dam from “Unsafe or Potentially Unsafe” to “Conditionally Unsafe” after studying the risks faced by the dam.
“We’re not saying the dam itself is necessarily safer,” he said. “What we’re saying is that we’ve revised the safety rating after taking a closer look and confirming that it’s a robust dam and the likelihood of a seismic event is low.”
Officials additionally have determined that the cracks in the dam and leaks don’t present an urgent risk of failure.
According to the corps’ newest analysis, the biggest risks come from earthquakes, which are rare in the region, and adverse weather events – including heavy snowpack, an abnormally wet spring and a rapid warming trend.
Dworshak Dam, located near the north-central Idaho town of Orofino, is 717 feet tall – only 9 feet shorter than Hoover Dam. It’s also the tallest straight-axis dam in the Western Hemisphere, which means that unlike the Hoover, it relies on a massive amount of concrete rather than a curved design to hold back the force of the water’s flow.
The impact of a dam failure would be huge, likely inundating the communities of Ahsahka, Orofino and Lewiston as well as Clarkston, Wash. In fact, Henrickson said, such a failure would likely be felt through five downstream dams – all the way to McNary Dam on the Snake River near Umatilla, Ore.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building Dworshak in 1966, creating a 53-mile-long reservoir that extends into the Bitterroot Mountains. The corps has spent millions of dollars over the past five decades attempting to patch cracks in the dam and in the bedrock beneath the structure.
The dam’s new safety rating is “High Priority – Conditionally Unsafe,” a one-step improvement over the previous rating, Henrickson said.