Take Action and Be Prepared: May 31st is National Dam Safety Awareness Day

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On May 31st, the dam safety community acknowledges National Dam Safety Awareness Day and asks policymakers, lawmakers, and citizens to remember that dam safety is a shared responsibility and to recognize that the risks associated with dams can affect everyone. 

Dams provide a life-sustaining resource to people in all United States regions; however, they are innately hazardous structures. Failure or mis-operation can result in the release of the reservoir contents - this includes water, mine wastes, or agricultural refuse - causing negative impacts upstream or downstream or at locations remote from the dam. Dam failures have caused loss of human life, economic loss, including property damage, lifeline disruption and environmental damage.

Recent crises like the failure of the Oroville Dam spillway in California or the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams in Michigan, have made major headlines, highlighting the poor condition of many of the nation's dams. Without proper maintenance, routine inspection, necessary upgrades, and coordinated emergency planning, the risks associated with dams become greater. And for those living around dams or in dam-inundation areas, the risk may be great. It is therefore of the utmost importance that those living near dams know their risks. Communication helps increase knowledge, understanding, and awareness of dams and the risks dams pose.  

Photo: Wreckage after the flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (via Library of Congress). The issue of dam safety was not widely recognized until 1889 when the failure of South Fork Dam claimed more than 2,200 lives. As we observe the 132nd anniversary of this tragedy on May 31, we encourage you to understand the importance of dam safety, the role various parties play, and current dam safety issues. For a technical look at this failure, view the South Fork Dam case study on DamFailures.org.


 

Increasing Hazard

Some dams are considered to have a greater hazard potential than others. As of 2021, there are approximately 16,500 high-hazard potential (HHP) dams in the United States. HHP dams are defined by the majority of state dam safety regulatory programs and federal agencies as a dam in which failure or mis-operation will probably cause a loss of human life. Although the term does not reflect the condition of a dam, and many are in excellent condition, there are thousands of HHP dams around the country that do not meet current safety standards. 

HHP dams exist in every state and affect the lives of thousands downstream. The current debate is over the increasing number of these high-hazard structures - not because more high-hazard dams are being built, but because more development is occurring downstream. Dam safety regulators generally have no control over local zoning issues or developers' property rights, and so this issue continues to worry regulators as the "hazard creep" trend persists. 

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ASDSO Failure Modes Series: Hazard Creep at Dams


 

Lack of Adequate Oversight

Vast Majority.pngState dam safety programs have primary regulatory responsibility for almost 75% of the nation’s dams. State dam safety programs oversee classification, permitting, and inspection of dams, provide enforcement, oversee remediation of deficient dams, and work with local officials and dam owners on emergency preparedness.  

Although most states have legislative authority to carry out a comprehensive dam safety program, many are lacking in specific areas. Some states are unable, by specific language in their law, to regulate certain types of dams, allowing these structures to fall between the regulatory cracks. Other states have limited ability to enforce the law. In some states, officials have no recourse if dam owners do not carry out safety repairs ordered by the state. 

Additionally, many state programs lack adequate budgets, staff, and authority to carry out these duties and ensure public safety. Although things have improved in the last 20 years, there is an ongoing, serious need in almost every state to pump additional state resources into these programs. 


 

Emergency Preparedness: 

EAP.pngEmergency planning and preparedness procedures must be in place in the event of an incident or failure. Until the last ten-plus years, many dams in the US did not have Emergency Action Plans or exercising procedures in place. Emergency Action Plans (EAPs) play a big role in keeping people and property safe in the event of a dam breach or failure. Emergency preparedness is improving, with the percentage of state-regulated high-hazard potential dams with an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) increasing. The goal is for all high-hazard potential dams to have an EAP, so that dam owners and local authorities are prepared for a sudden dam failure and the ensuing downstream consequences. 


 

Deferred Rehabilitation Due to Lack of Financing

There are more than 90,000 dams listed in the National Inventory of Dams, and thousands of the most critical high-hazard potential dams in the US do not meet current safety standards. In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the nation's dams a grade of D in their 2021 Infrastructure Report Card. There is an urgent need to address these deficiencies; however, many dam owners, especially private dam owners, find it difficult to finance rehabilitation projects. 

Recently, the Biden Administration and the 117th Congress recognized the federal government's role in improving dam safety in the US by including approximately $2 billion within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This funding, among other things, supports a HHP dam rehab grant program through the FEMA National Dam Safety Program. 

Still, more is needed to significantly address the backlog of projects. ASDSO estimates that the cost of rehabilitating non-federal dams in the United States has risen to more than $75 billion, and the cost to rehabilitate those dams where the risk is highest exceeds $24 billion. The cost only rises as maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation are delayed.

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Read ASDSO's Cost of Rehabilitating Our Nation's Dams Report


 

Communication with the Public and Living with Dams

Intersecting almost all dam safety issues is the need for public education about dams. The ordinary citizen is unaware that many of the beautiful lakes on which they boat, ski, or fish are only there because of manmade dams. Developers build in dam-break flood inundation areas knowing nothing about the potential devastation an upstream dam could cause should it ever fail. In fact, some developers and zoning officials are completely unaware of dams within their communities. Even if citizens understand and are aware of dams, they still can be overly confident in the infallibility of these manmade structures. Living in dam-break flood-prone areas is a risk. 

Living with Dams: Know Your Risks was prepared by ASDSO to help address these issues and answer questions about dams. Topics dam purposes, risks associated with dams, and where you can get information about how to react if you are affected by one. 

 

A second booklet, Living with Dams: Extreme Rainfall Events, explains the engineering principles involved in predicting extreme rainfall events and how these principles are used to design safe, functional and economical dams. It connects the concepts of rain to floods to dams to failure and the flooding impacts downstream. 

 

 

Deep Dive into Dam Safety

For more information on dam safety topics, visit the links below.

Roadmap to Reducing Dam Safety Risks - Learn more about current issues and challenges, as well as what we can do to improve dam safety.

Access State Dam Safety Programs & Contacts - For state-specific dam safety details, visit our map page and click on your state.

Public Safety at Dams (Low-Head Dam Awareness) - Each year, dozens of lives are lost on America’s low-head or “run-of-the-river” dams. Among the victims are boaters, kayakers, swimmers, anglers, and emergency responders. People are often unaware of these dangers, or they underestimate their risk of falling victim to them. It is critically important to understand the scope of this danger and be aware of the many ways you can keep yourself safe and avoid a tragedy.

ASCE Report Card for America's Infrastructure - The American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card every four years and assigns grades for 17 infrastructure sectors, including dams and levees. ASCE released the 2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure on March 3rd and both dams and levees received a grade of D. 

Dam Owner Academy: Dams 101 (Video) - 'Dams 101' is the first in a series of educational videos for dam owners from ASDSO. This video focuses on the types of dams and how they work. Although this video is part of the dam owner series, this video is suitable for anyone looking for an introduction to dams.

Damfailures.org - Presented within this website are links to individual case studies as well as lessons learned pages that summarize historical dam incidents and failures and the valuable information gleaned from them. Each page contains background and description, photographs, videos, best practices, and other resources related to the case study or lessons learned being addressed.

ASDSO Awareness Center - This area of the ASDSO website includes more information on dam basics.

FEMA National Dam Safety Awareness Day Webpage - The National Dam Safety Program has additional resources available to assist with outreach on National Dam Safety Awareness Day.


 

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For more information, contact ASDSO Communications Manager Katelyn Riley - [email protected]

Special thanks to our sustaining members