As dry as the Zintel Canyon Dam

The dry dam at Canyon Lakes

In 1992, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the dry Zintel Canyon Dam in Kennewick near the new Canyon Lakes neighborhood and golf course. City planners and developers had begun to develop the area, but decided they needed protection from seasonal flooding to develop the neighborhood further.

So, the Corps started construction on the 7.3 million-dollar project in March of 1992 and finished it in December of the same year. According to local residents, water has never flowed over the dam, but there have been instances of water filling up behind the dam during city testing of the aquifer storage system.

Fast forward 30 years to the residential construction explosion of 2022 and you’ll see houses popping up at the base of the dam.

Of course, I’m not here to give a history lesson. Instead, I’d like to talk about risk and comfort level here for a minute. On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being the least comfortable and 10 being the most), how comfortable would you be building a house at the base of the Zintel Canyon Dam? Or any other area of potential water (or mud) risk?

I’ll just throw out some numbers based on my personal observations of where I would and wouldn’t be willing to live based on exposure to water and other natural disasters, and you can see whether you agree.

1 (extremely uncomfortable) – Near the base of Mt. Pinatubo. I know, you don’t think of the thick, muddy lahars as being a water event, but this is what causes the most destruction. Even though the mountain erupted in 1991, I wouldn’t relocate if given the opportunity. The same goes for Mt. Rainier or Mt. Adams. They are beautiful from a distance, but I’m living far from the potential of their ash and mud to flow over my home.

2 – Silverthorne, Colorado. It’s beautiful place to visit and many people happily live there, but the “indestructible” dam holding back 83 billion gallons wouldn’t give me much comfort as I’m falling asleep at night.

3 – New Orleans, Louisiana. Before Hurricane Katrina revealed the weakness of the levee system in New Orleans, I was not a fan of this city that lives below sea level.

4 – Heppner, Oregon. Since the great flood of 1903, Heppner has not been the same. Sure, people have adapted and anticipated future floods, but they still have happened pretty regularly in the past century.

5 – Malibu, California. What a beautiful place! And yet, the regular mudslides show that wealth won’t do much to protect the hills and houses from too much water.

6 – Amsterdam, Netherlands. After thousands of years of experience, the good people of Amsterdam seem to have figured out how to live with lots of dams and lots of water. But it’s still not really in my comfort level.

7 – Downstream from a large irrigation canal. This may be unpopular, because I have many friends who live downstream from large irrigation canals, but it seems like every year burrowing animals are creating breaches in canals and causing a fair amount of destruction to homes and property. And, often, frustrating insurance claims follow.

8 – West Richland, in the flood plain of the Yakima River. Every few years, the Yakima likes to jump out of its bounds and remind homeowners that the dam system is only mostly effective.

9 – Downstream from the Zintel Canyon Dam. Ok, there seems to be surprisingly little risk for the people building below the dam. In fact, it looks like you’d face more risk of flooding your house from broken pipes or leaking fish tanks.

10 (very comfortable) – Antofagasta, Chile. Since it only rains about once every few years in the Atacama Desert region (some areas have never recorded rain), most residents don’t even bother to put a roof on their house. In fact, I’m pretty sure they love every bit of the average 0.6 inches per year of precipitation that they get.

Let me know whether you agree with my ranking in the comments below.

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