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Improving Dam Safety

Updated: Mar 15

Dams in the U.S. are economically essential and numerous. Here is a six-point plan to prevent potential safety hazards.


Big Picture


Dams are powerful projects that can generate electricity and prevent flooding, but their sizes and strategic locations also render many potential safety hazards. The U.S. has more than 91,000 dams, and approximately 15,500 are likely to cause fatalities should they fail. Dams’ intrinsic risks are exacerbated by their age — with outdated materials and technologies, they are less resilient to natural disasters and chemical buildup in water, thus posing potential problems that may require additional funding and maintenance.


Operative Definitions


  1. High-risk potential dams: A designation of dams, the failure or mal-operation of which would cause deaths. They are not necessarily in poor condition. Also known as high hazard potential.

  2. Emergency Action Plans (EAPs): A document that identifies potential incidents that might compromise a dam, the areas its failure would impact and specific methods of minimizing damages. EAPs are drafted by dam owners with inputs from state officials, first responders and local communities.

  3. Dam regulator: A party responsible for enforcing dam safety measures such as inspections, EAP review and repairs oversight. Federal regulators include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and state regulators include California’s Department of Water Resources and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Important Facts and Statistics


  1. The average age of dams in the U.S. is above 56 years; by 2025, 70% of all U.S. dams will be more than 50 years old.

  2. Private entities own about 60% of all U.S. dams; local governments approximately, 18%; state authorities, 7%; and the federal government only owns 4%.

  3. A 2021 calculation estimates that approximately $70 billion would be needed to rehabilitate all dams that require repairing in the U.S. It would cost $23 billion to fix only the high-risk potential dams.

Six-Point Plan


(1) Develop EAPs for all high-risk potential dams in the U.S.

EAPs enable better coordinated and more timely responses to dam accidents and failures, thus saving lives and reducing property damage. However, by 2017 many dams were still operating without EAPs, including 96% of all dams in South Carolina and 88% in Mississippi, despite state mandates. Regulators can set a mandatory deadline by which all high-risk potential dams must submit EAPs for review and expand the requirements to cover less critical dams over time.


(2) Reform public awareness campaigns about dam safety to make them more accessible. 

It is important to educate people about the locations and conditions of dams in their vicinity, as well as the relevant safety precautions. However, FEMA’s public awareness program, Dam Safety Collaborative Technical Assistance, is only available by application, heavy in technical details and months in duration, more suitable for large corporations or governmental agencies than everyday citizens. A more accessible program must be designed to provide Americans with condensed, basic information on dam safety. 


(3) Identify dam removal candidates in the South and the Midwest where removal efforts are lacking. 

Over 1,200 dams have been removed in the U.S. either for safety purposes or to restore ecology, and the removal of obsolete dams can be fiscally prudent to reduce maintenance costs in the long term. However, although the South and the Midwest (Texas, Georgia, Kansas, etc.) have a majority of the country’s dams, these regions have removed few. More efforts should be directed to identify removable dams in these areas, where this practice is likely to yield greater returns by saving costs and reducing hazards.


(4) Provide federal fiscal support to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO). 

The non-profit ASDSO, a professional organization of U.S. dam owners, regulators and researchers, is a vital partner of FEMA in coordinating nationwide dam safety programs. With representation from most states and many local stakeholders, ASDSO can help improve interstate information sharing and standard building. It now depends on individual and business donations, and a steady federal funding source could considerably amplify its influence.


(5) Provide more funding to state dam regulators, especially for inspection and rehabilitation efforts. 

States vary in their budgets for dam safety programs and frequency of inspections. In most cases, both are unsatisfactory; 36 states have a dams-per-inspector ratio above 100, and three are above 1,000. Federal dam grants, such as FEMA’s Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams program, are underfunded, leading to a backlog of uninspected and unrepaired dams. Federal or state funding — either one-time grants or longer-term tax allocations — could help hire more professionals and reduce the accumulating backlog. 


(6) Establish a dam-regulating body in Alabama.

Alabama is the only state without a state-level dam regulator or safety program, despite having more than 2,200 dams. As a result, information about their conditions, hazard level and maintenance are lacking, and there are no uniform safety standards or periodic inspections. Establishing a state dam regulator could remove this last “blindspot” of safety statistics and pave the road for further precautions.


Why This Initiative Is Important


Dams in the U.S. are economically essential and numerous. 6.3% of all our electricity, or 31.5% of U.S. renewable energy, as well as the safety of millions of American households, depend on their structural and operational integrity. More funding for dam safety programs, combined with greater coverage and uniformity of state practices, can gradually fix and update America’s aging dams, prevent future failures and build a consistent, sustainable hydropower infrastructure.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


ASDSO Basics. Association of State Dam Safety Officials. https://damsafety.org/about-ASDSO


Bellmore, Ryan J., et al. “Status and trends of dam removal research in the United States,” WIREs Water, vol. 4 (March/April 2017).


Bowman, Margaret, et al. Exploring Dam Removal: A Decision-Making Guide. American Rivers, August 2002.


Dam Safety: Federal Programs and Authorities. Congressional Research Service, 13 Dec. 2021.


“Dams”. 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017.

Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam (HHPD) Grant Program. Federal Emergency Management Agency, 12 July 2022. https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/risk-management/dam-safety/rehabilitation-high-hazard-potential-dams.


Spillman, Benjamin, et al. “U.S. dams are aging and many don’t have emergency plans.” USA Today, 13 Feb. 2017.


Talbert, Brady. “Alabama remains only state without safety program for dams.” WSFA12 News, 1 Apr. 2022. https://www.wsfa.com/2022/04/02/alabama-remains-only-state-without-safety-program-dams/

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