Where did the Baby Boomers go?

18 June 2008

One of the key concerns for the United States Society on Dams is adequate investment in the human element of the industry. Current president, Ken Steele, explains more

In the US, as perhaps other countries, we experienced a dramatic increase in the birth rate following World War II. This led to the Baby Boomer generation, comprising those born between 1946 and 1964. As the members of this demographic have moved though life they have had an unprecedented impact on everything. The widespread boom in dam building in the US coincided with the Baby Boomers’ youth but many of these professionals are now heading into retirement.

We have a challenge due to the sheer number of people leaving the workforce at all levels, but agencies are collaborating to share innovative solutions. The United States Society on Dams (USSD) shared perspectives on this at our recent national conference in Oregon. At the same time we also honoured eight eminent members of our profession who had passed away during the year.

The nature of dam development in the US manifests itself much like the Baby Boomers in our population. Our peak development years were the 1950s through to the 1970s when we averaged about 15,000 new dams per decade. All those dams from the boom years are now more than 50 years old. We have already developed our most desirable dam sites. However, our human, environmental and economic needs for and demands on water resources continue to grow.

Our focus in the professions associated with dams is becoming more oriented on optimising productivity from the resources that we have already developed. The concern for our ageing infrastructure is fairly universal across all areas of civil engineering.

Upon analysis of the recent collapse of a major bridge in Minnesota, it appears that the collapse may have had more to do with a design error, and subsequent failure to discover this error, than to a deferral of maintenance projects. Our generation’s projects and work are good but not perfect.

In the transfer of knowledge in our profession we do not want to constrain the younger professional to knowing what we know, solving the kinds of problems that we did and using the same techniques we used. Future considerations for dams and reservoirs need to account for climate change to an extent that has never been done before. Collaboration skills will also be needed among engineering disciplines. Our young engineers are great. They are well educated, know how to use modern analytical tools, and possess great enthusiasm for knowledge and experience.

Anti-dam sentiment

We have enjoyed a great increase in general prosperity and quality of life in the US over the past decades. As a nation, we have had the ability to feed ourselves as well as others. We have generally experienced a plentiful and healthy water supply for our cities. We have enabled our society to make unprecedented progress in its economy, science and arts rather than expend its resources in constantly rebuilding itself from flood damage. We have a very effective and fuel efficient water transportation system. Water recreational opportunities are generally available to people in all socio-economic classes.

I do not believe that it was simply coincidence that our societal progress took place in harmony with the boom period of dam building. Yet this seems generally overlooked in our public thinking today.

The issue that most concerns me is the almost prejudicial anti-dam sentiment that seems to deny or omit mention of any positive benefit of dams. This is an attitude that pervades many environmental groups, finds its way into ‘political correctness’ and acts as a detriment to clear thinking and open mindedness. One of USSD’s primary goals is to provide factual information about dams, so that the public and our legislators can make better informed decisions.

During my presidency I am eager to see how changes in our understanding of technologies affect our care of existing structures. This includes everything from climate change and seismiscity to reservoir re-operation.

I also hope to see the US become more engaged in international organisations like icold. The history and records are longer in some countries and their comprehension of risk is perhaps better developed. They would also have more experience in optimisation and rehabilitation projects. We can learn a lot from the experiences in other countries.

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