Imminent Collapse of the Toledo Bend Dam — or Maybe Not

Toledo Bend Dam on the Sabine River in Texas, March 2016 at record discharge levels.

Toledo Bend Dam on the Sabine River in Texas, March 2016 at record discharge levels.

I can’t totally explain in public why I’m writing this, but I feel obliged to do it anyway as best I can. Even though it might not become an actual event this week, it’s looming in our future in hundreds of places around the world and it’s a problem we need to face. I’m writing specifically about Toledo Bend Dam because there’s some photographic evidence that supports my concerns. Because of historically significant rains this winter in Texas and the Deep South which got far less coverage than the relatively minor rains that happened in California, which the media for some reason thinks is actually important, during this last rain event Texas and got Louisiana got hammered. Over twenty four inches of rain in places, not to mention the equivalent of four hurricane rains before that. When a river of storms branched off the El Nino blob this past week and headed for California, that was news. When something bigger happened down in the Gulf, it was hardly worth mention. Probably seems way more important if you live in the Deep South.

I saw this 2016 photo of Toledo Bend Dam and I was immediately saying to myself, uhoh, this is different, this is scary. I’ve seen lots of dams at full discharge and that’s very impressive, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. I did some research on Toledo Bend and found some corresponding footage of a nine-gate release in 2015 when the floodgates were opened to 3 feet. Big difference, this time the gates are opened twenty feet, full open I assume, plus the toolbox and the radio and this is really all anyone can do except cross fingers and hope. There’s a vast difference in these two photos.

Nine gates open to 3 feet at Toledo Bend in 2015, notice the quiet water to the upper left above the dam.

Nine gates open to 3 feet at Toledo Bend in 2015, Notice the quiet water to the upper left above the dam.

There are events we design for, called the Worst Case Scenario, and there are events we can’t even comprehend that happen anyway. It’s an engineering thing, you figure out the worst possible scenario and you design something that will hold up to it. I’m a technical sort, studied that kind of thing in college even though I was too messed up by a tour in Vietnam to sit still and respect teachers and tended to get up and walk away in the middle of classes. Hey! I still learned some things! In the design phase of the Toledo Bend Dam I would expect that engineers looked at historical records to figure out what was the worst possible scenario and designed something that would hold up to it. Back then, people were not thinking about climate change. People were not thinking that things could actually get worse. We are now getting into the realm of things that are so bad we can’t possibly imagine they will happen.

Toledo Bend Dam 2016, everything open to maximum plus the toolbox and radio. Notice the turbulence above the dam and the white water marking a discharge in the quiet zone to the lower left.

Toledo Bend Dam 2016, everything open to maximum plus the toolbox and radio. Notice the turbulence above the dam and the white water marking a discharge in the quiet zone to the lower left.

So what I’m seeing that is frighteningly different in the photos of the Toledo Bend Dam in 2015, within predictable levels; and Toledo Bend Dam in 2016 during what is probably slightly above the Worst Case Scenario, is turbulence. Any engineer who looks at these photos ought to be scared, in fact, they should be shitting square bricks with sharp edges. All engineers there should be walking around that dam with crossed fingers and sphincter muscles pulled so tight they could cut steel cables. There’s nothing else to do except hope it holds.

Fifty or sixty years ago, roughly, our nation and even the worldwide culture embarked upon a massive task, to subdue nature and bind it to our purposes. We were thinking fifty to a hundred years ahead, that these were interim steps towards a wonderfully massive civilization we couldn’t quite comprehend, and even though we knew we were building future problems we thought it was not important, in the future we will understand how to fix things. Everything will be rosy.

We did not understand that what we were doing would change the climate, that the world ahead would be different and exceed any extremes we thought were possible. That’s the problem with dams, there’s an upper limit to dams and when you exceed that there’s nothing to either side but dirt. Water loves to cut through dirt. Or stone, it doesn’t really care. The St. Lawrence Seaway, the Potholes country in Oregon, and the English Channel are all examples of what happens when natural dams collapse. Those channels were cut in weeks, not in centuries. Nature does not wait for us to adapt. All dams will fail, any engineer can tell you that. You hope to be retired when it happens.

Our hydroelectric and flood control projects are just a sample of the disasters we have programmed into our own future with our cocky attitudes that we rule the world. Sixty years ago we started building nuclear power plants, knowing there were problems with waste disposal and facility retirement that we didn’t know how to solve. But hey! in the future, fifty years from now, people will be smarter and will know how to fix this! So we went ahead. For the short future it seemed like a good thing.

Now, all those nuclear power plants with a projected useful lifetime of fifty years are still running, because there is no safe way to shut them down. We have unknown tons of nuclear waste from these power plants that we have no safe way to store and we don’t even have a plan for doing this. Where are those smart people with the answers that we knew would be here now? Well, they are not here, and they won’t arrive. We have created some problems to which there are no answers beyond disaster. Maybe it’s too late to understand that we should work with nature instead of trying to conquer nature, but that’s the only way it actually works.

In olden times the ruler of a prosperous city (according to Buddhist legend) commissioned several of the wisest men in his kingdom to come up with a motto to carve into the city gate. Something good, he probably said, Like the thing over the gates of Bangkok maybe, “Who Would Deal in Gold, May Deal in Gold; Who Would Deal in Diamonds, May Deal in Diamonds; Who Would Deal in Elephants, May Deal in Elephants.” Something catchy, something upbeat.

What the wise men came up with, and what wound up carved into those city gates, was “This Too, Shall Pass.”


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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses -- Arctic and Jungle.

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