Dam Safety 101

Dam Safety Regulation in the U.S.

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.

State Regulation Today

Today, every state but Alabama have dam safety regulatory programs. State governments have regulatory responsibility for 77% of the approximately 87,000 dams within the National Inventory of Dams. These programs vary in authority but, typically, the program activities include 1) safety evaluations of existing dams, 2) review of plans and specifications for dam construction and major repair work, 3) periodic inspections of construction work on new and existing dams, and 4) 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.

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