How Are Dams Regulated?

The Importance of Safety Regulation

Safety is key to the effectiveness of a dam. Dam failures can be devastating for the dam owners, to the dam’s intended purpose and, especially, for downstream populations and property. Property damage can range in the thousands to billions of dollars. No price can be put on the lives that have been lost and could be lost in the future due to dam failure. Failures know no state boundaries—inundation from a dam failure could affect several states and large populations.

Early in this century, as many dams failed due to lack of proper engineering and maintenance, it was recognized that some form of regulation was needed. One of the earliest state programs was enacted in California in the 1920s. Federal agencies, such as the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation built many dams during the early part of the twentieth century and established safety standards during this time. Slowly, other states began regulatory programs. But it was not until the string of significant dam failures in the 1970s that awareness was raised to a new level among the states and the federal government.

Regulation Today

State Regulation Today

Today, every state but Alabama has a dam safety regulatory program. State governments have regulatory responsibility for 70% of the approximately 90,000 dams within the National Inventory of Dams. These programs vary in authority but, typically, the program activities include:

  •  safety evaluations of existing dams
  •  review of plans and specifications for dam construction and major repair work
  •  periodic inspections of construction work on new and existing dams, and
  •  review and approval of emergency action plans.

Federal Regulation Today

There are several federal government agencies involved with dam safety. Together, these federal agencies are responsible for five percent of the dams in the U.S. They construct, own and operate, regulate or provide technical assistance and research for dams. Included in this list are the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, Interior, Labor and State (International Boundary and Water Commission), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administers the National Dam Safety Program, a program established by law in 1996 to coordinate the federal effort through the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety, to assist state dam safety programs through financial grants, and to provide research funding and coordination of technology transfer.

Federal Agencies

Federal agency representatives make up about 16% of the ASDSO membership. About 14% of dams in the USA are owned or regulated by federal agencies.

The Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency does not own or regulate dams but administers the National Dam Safety Program, which coordinates all federal dam safety programs and assists states in improving their dam safety regulatory programs.

The Department of Homeland Security, Infrastructure Protection leads a coordinated national program to reduce risks to the nation's critical infrastructure, including dams, posed by acts of terrorism.

Federal agencies involved with dam safety, either as owners and/or regulators, include the following:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Department of Defense

Department of the Interior

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Mine Safety and Health Administration

International Boundary and Water Commission (U.S. Section)

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Tennessee Valley Authority

Together the agencies listed above make up the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety (ICODS), overseen by FEMA as head of the National Dam Safety Program.

Other federal agencies that stay involved with ASDSO and the dam safety community:

Special thanks to our sustaining members