DAMS in the US go back as far as and are closely tied to the very beginnings of the nation, especially as people and commerce moved toward the arid but promising west. As people blazed trails and created communities they built dams for water supply, flood control, irrigation purposes, and navigation; and later for electricity and recreational purposes.

Yet several devastating dam failures – beginning with the Mill river, Massachusetts and Johnstown, Pennsylvania floods in the 1880s and culminating with several major failures in the 1970s – have focused modern attention on the importance of sound engineering and public safety related to the construction, continued maintenance and upgrades of dams. It became clear, especially after the tragedies of the 1970s, that the only way to increase safety and decrease the likelihood of further human and economic losses from dam failures was to develop strong regulations and more coordination within the dam safety community.

This wasn’t going to be easy. Prior to the rash of highly visible dam failures in the 1970s, there was little state or federal interest in dam safety. Even dam owners were somewhat unaware of their responsibilities and liabilities. There was no communication between states, between the federal government and the states, and, technologically, among engineering experts.

At this period of time, in the late 1970s and following the dam failure at Toccoa Falls, Georgia, President Jimmy Carter – a Georgia native – issued an executive order directing the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to inspect non-federal high hazard potential dams. President Carter encouraged state governments to implement effective safety programmes for non-federal dams. USACE’s national inspection programme, carried out between 1978-1981, brought to light the deficiencies in the vast number of non-federal dams, and created sufficient state and federal impetus to establish one body that would serve to increase state interest in dam safety regulation and would act as the mechanism to establish a communications link between main players within the community. Thus, within this climate of uncertainty and tragedy, a forward-looking group of dam safety officials from state and federal arenas formed the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO). Now, after a little over 20 years of service to the dam safety community, ASDSO’s goal remains the same: to advance and improve the safety of dams. It is a difficult task, and formidable challenges certainly remain.

The role of asdso

ASDSO is considered an educational, charitable organisation in the US, a private organisational designation. ASDSO is not a regulatory body nor does it set policy for the agencies that carry out dam safety regulation. ASDSO does not own dams.

The organisation is run by the 50 state dam safety programmes through a representative board of directors. There is a staff of four running the operation out of an office in Lexington, Kentucky. The success of the association lies in its unity of purpose and in the work of its many dedicated volunteers.

In 1985, when the first ASDSO newsletter was published, 41 states and Puerto Rico had officially joined the association, and there were only 165 members. Now ASDSO’s numbers have grown to over 2200 with members in every state and several foreign countries. In 1983, only 24 states met standards established by the Model State Dam Safety Programme, a guidebook created jointly by ASDSO and federal leaders through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A recent study showed 39 states meeting minimal legislative standards set forth in the Model State Dam Safety Programme.

State dam inventories have become more comprehensive: in 1976, USACE’s national dam inventory listed 49,329 non-federal dams; today, state inventories include more than 95,000 dams. Average state dam safety staff numbers have increased from 5.6 to 7, and the average state dam safety budget has more than quadrupled, from US$132,700 in 1983 to US$653,400 today.

In 1977, dam safety laws were inadequate in about half of all states and non-existent in seven. Today, there are laws regulating dam safety in all states but Alabama, where efforts to establish dam safety legislation are currently underway, with the help and support of ASDSO.

In 1976, it was estimated that approximately 33% of non-federal dams were unsafe, meaning they had deficiencies that made them susceptible to failure. By 1996, 42% of the previously determined unsafe dams were brought up to state safety standards. Today, the percentage of deficient dams among the 41 states reporting has decreased to less than 5%.

Meeting goals with federal and state legislative support

ASDSO members work to strengthen dam safety regulatory laws and increase budgets for dam safety; volunteers routinely visit Washington to educate federal lawmakers about the need for a strong federal leadership role in dam safety. ASDSO members worked hard to ensure the passage of the National Dam Safety and Security Act passed in 2002. Administered by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Act provides assistance grants to state inspection/permitting programmes, continuing education resources to engineers, funding for research in dam safety, and a mechanism to coordinate the many federal dam safety programmes and the state programmes to improve communication and technology transfer.

ASDSO has been assisting Alabama and Delaware in their efforts to establish state dam safety laws. In 2004, Delaware, aided by ASDSO and FEMA, successfully passed legislation to establish its regulatory programme.

ASDSO also provides support to states at risk of losing funding or regulatory authority. Recently, the State of Michigan, fighting state budget problems, slashed funding for a number of programmes, including the state’s dam safety programme. This occurred despite the fact that in 2003 Michigan experienced a devastating dam failure, which caused over US$100M in property damage and the loss of a power plant for several weeks. ASDSO and its partners fought this action, and are urging Michigan lawmakers to revive the state programme, as prevention is much less costly – not to mention tragic – than dealing with the aftermath of a dam failure.

Peer review programme

Since 1990, ASDSO has performed Peer Reviews – rigorous dam safety programme performance reviews for state agencies, many of the largest federal dam safety programmes, and private sector utility companies. Teams of experts review programme policies and publications and meet with programme staff in a confidential review of dam safety policies.

Dam owners come in all shapes and sizes in the US (see chart, opposite). From federal agencies that build the ‘big ones’, such as Hoover dam and Grand Coulee; to state or local government bodies, which may own and operate smaller water delivery systems or flood control dams; to private owners including utility companies, farmers, or lake associations, US dam owners are a diverse and complex group. ASDSO works to educate and assist dam owners through tools, workshops and the Peer Review programme.

Training engineers and inspectors

One of ASDSO’s main goals is to fill the training gap that exists for dam safety engineers. Although many excellent university engineering schools exist in the US, there is not one comprehensive programme that focuses on dam safety engineering as a speciality. Most engineers would only receive on-the-job training to become well-versed in dam safety engineering were it not for the National Dam Safety Programme’s training programme, which includes seminars taught through ASDSO.

With funding from the National Dam Safety Programme, ASDSO conducts continuing education courses. Personnel from every state dam safety agency plus hundreds of private sector and federal engineers have been trained through this programme over the past 15 years.

Working from a dam engineering technical curriculum developed a few years ago by the ASDSO Technical Training Committee, the schedule for future seminars includes the following:

Advanced course on Dambreak Analysis, presented by Dr. Danny Fread, Dr. Michael Gee, and Wayne Graham. To be held July 12-15 in Columbus, Ohio and October 25-28 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

2005-06 regional seminars:

Northeast Seminar: Hydraulic Analysis for Spillways, November 2-4 in Princeton, NJ.

• Southeast Seminar: Hydraulic Analysis for Spillways, December 6-8 in Charlotte, NC.

• West Seminar: Hydraulic Analysis for Spillways, February 2006.

• Midwest Seminar: Safety Evaluation of Existing Dams (SEED), March 2006.

2006-07 regional seminars:

Northeast: topic to be determined (November 2006).

• Southeast: EAP Planning and Implementation (December 2006

• West: SEED (February 2007).

• Midwest: Hydraulic Analysis for Spillways (March 2007).

Also underwritten by the National Dam Safety Programme, ASDSO sponsors attendance of state personnel at continuing education seminars and workshops. ASDSO collects and posts information about technical training available from other organisations and agencies.

Promoting a national network

Recent years have seen the formation of strong partnerships of public and private entities. To promote national networking, ASDSO offers regional and national conferences that focus on current issues and transfer of knowledge relating to dam safety. The next national conference will be held in New Orleans, Louisiana on 25-29, September , 2005 and will attract over 700 participants.

Partnerships can be the key to success when an issue such as dam safety intersects so many interests and concerns. ASDSO maintains communication and leverages support for dam safety by working with other organisations interested in issues related to dam safety, such as:

Association of State Floodplain Managers.

• National Emergency Management Association.

• American Society of Civil Engineers, Environment and Water Resources Institute.

• Canadian Dam Association.

National Watershed Coalition.

• US Society on Dams.

• Western State Engineers.

ASDSO also works closely with a number of federal agencies, including:

Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Department of Homeland Security, Infrastructure Protection and Information Analysis Directorate.


Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

•Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.

Tennessee Valley Authority.

• US Dept. of Labour, Mine Safety & Health Administration.

• US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

• US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

International Boundary & Water Commission.

• US Department of Energy.

All of these agencies either own dams, regulate dams or provide technical support for dam safety. They provide a wealth of expertise to dam safety leaders across the country.

The partnership would not be complete without the interest and support coming from the private sector—consulting firms, contractors, suppliers, academia, and others who share the goal of improving dam safety and want to help ASDSO in carrying out its mission. ASDSO maintains close ties with its private sector membership.

Public Outreach

ASDSO spreads the message about the importance of dam safety in several ways:

By working with the media on issues of local and national interest.

By making presentations about dam safety to various groups.

• By awarding undergraduate scholarships of up to US$5000 to students planning a career in dam safety.

• By providing information via the ASDSO website to students of all ages, as well as the general public.

ASDSO serves as a clearinghouse for information on dam safety, provides research services, and produces educational publications, periodicals, reports and statistical analyses. Its website posts information for both the dam safety professional and the general public. The site includes a comprehensive bibliographic search tool for dam safety publications and audio/visual materials.

ASDSO works closely with a federal programme to collect and analyse US dam inventory data and programme performance data for all state dam safety programmes. With the National Dam Inspection Act (P.L. 92-367) of 1972, Congress authorised USACE to inventory dams located in the US. USACE and ASDSO are continually trying to improve the process of inventory data collection and transmission by the states and federal agencies to take advantage of the power and flexibility of current PC computers, software and the Internet.

ASDSO also distributes a monthly electronic newsletter and a quarterly technical journal to members; it also monitors ongoing dam safety research, and has sponsored workshops to assess research needs, in conjunction with the National Dam Safety Programme.

Challenges ahead

Although much progress has been made in the last 20 years, much remains to be done. Challenges ahead include the following:

Improving dam security in light of a heightened awareness of terrorism in the US

ASDSO is working closely with the relatively new US Department of Homeland Security to coordinate support and training for dam owners and to create an information network among security experts and owners.

Dams are considered a Key Asset under the President’s national plan for critical infrastructure protection. Development of a national programme to identify the nation’s most vulnerable dams and to step up security in and around those dams is essential for national security.

Financing for dam rehabilitation

There is still an alarming lack of public support and education about the need for proper maintenance and repair of dams. Unless a dam fails, dam safety is not usually in the public view, although it is an issue that affects the safety of millions of people who could be living and working in the path of a sudden, deadly dam failure. History tells us that neglect, inadequate design and downstream development have combined to create some of the worst tragedies in our nation’s past.

While federally owned dams are generally in good condition, and there have been modest gains in the number of dams being repaired, the number of state-regulated dams identified as unsafe has recently started to increase at a fast rate. Although a much smaller percentage than 25 years ago, the current number of unsafe dams has risen by 33% in the past six years.

States presently report more than 3500 ‘unsafe’ dams, which have deficiencies that leave them more susceptible to failure. Without proper maintenance, repair and rehabilitation, a dam may become unable to serve its intended purpose and could be at great risk for failure. Effective dam inspection programmes routinely identify deficiencies at dams, but inspections alone are not a remedy for these deficiencies.

The number of high-hazard potential dams (dams whose failure would cause loss of human life) is increasing dramatically. Since 1998, the number of high-hazard potential dams has increased from 9281 to 10,213, with 1046 in North Carolina alone.

The combined effect of rapid downstream development, aging structures and necessary upgrades to dams based on more stringent and updated technical standards, has forced dam owners to spend thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars on their structures. Many owners, from small cities to private owners, simply do not have this kind of money.

A recent ASDSO study estimates that US$36.2B is needed to rehabilitate dams across the nation, based on the current national inventory of non-federally owned dams. It is estimated that US$10.1B is needed to address the most critical dams that pose a direct risk to human life should they fail. Needed repairs to publicly owned dams are estimated at US$5.9B.

To address the estimated US$36.2B cost, particularly the most critical dams, ASDSO and others in the dam safety community are pushing for a federal funding source for dam repair, rehabilitation and removal. There is currently a spark of interest in this topic in Washington DC, as a bill was introduced this year to address the need.

Decreasing dam failures

It is difficult to lessen the likelihood of dam failures, when so many different types of entities own dams and tight budgets in many states cause policymakers to decrease support for dam safety programmes. In the past two years, several significant failures have occurred.

In May 2003, the failure of Silver Lake dam, near Marquette, Michigan, caused the failure of downstream Tourist Park dam, and the evacuation of more than 1800 people in the city of Marquette. The failure caused an estimated US$100M in damages, including US$10M in damage to utility facilities; US$4M in environmental damage; US$3M worth of damage to roads and bridges; flooding of 20 homes and three businesses; flooding of the We Energies power plant, which generates half the electricity produced in the Upper Peninsula; the closure of two iron mines; the layoff of about 1100 mine workers for several weeks and local economic losses estimated at US$1M a day.

Also in May 2003, a dam in the community of Hope Mills, North Carolina, failed, causing the evacuation of 1600 people, and an estimated US$2.1M in damages.

• The dam impounding the 405ha Big Bay Lake, near Purvis, Mississippi failed in March 2004. Damaged or destroyed were over 100 homes, as well as two churches, a fire station, and a bridge.

In July 2004, heavy rains caused the failure of 21 dams in South New Jersey. Damages were extensive, estimated in excess of US$50M. More than 300 homes were flooded, and another 26 dams were damaged.

An unregulated dam failed in Georgia in October 2004, flooding a trailer park and leading to the rescue of a number of residents.

Increasing emergency preparedness and response.

Mitigation of dam failure impacts goes hand in hand with decreasing the likelihood of failure. The challenge rests with making sure owners have up-to-date Emergency Action Plans (EAP) and that the plans are tested routinely. If not for an effective EAP, lives could have been lost due to the 2004 Big Bay Lake dam failure.

Improving public awareness

The public is generally unaware of the benefits dams bring to their community and to the US as a whole. They are similarly unaware of the effect a dam failure could have on them. For example, many houses are built in dam failure flood inundation zones. Zoning boards are unaware of this when they develop zones, developers are unaware of it when they construct within these zones, and people buy homes and property in these zones completely unaware of the risk and potential consequences of dam failure. National and local efforts – similar to the Flood Insurance Programme campaign to increase awareness of the need to purchase flood insurance – should focus on increasing public awareness of dam safety.

Addressing the ever-increasing number of high-hazard potential structures

When the failure of a dam is determined to have the potential to take lives and create significant property damage, the dam is typically considered a high-hazard potential structure, regardless of its condition. Today, populations are increasing and moving into previously remote, agricultural areas, downstream of existing dams. Therefore, the need to strengthen those dams increases. The challenge is multi-faceted: from understanding the new downstream populations and property risk levels to calculating the cost-benefit of the upgrade needed at the dam, coupled with the new level of liability faced by the dam owner, the issues are complex and controversial.

Maintaining strong state regulatory programmes

Current challenges include a limited ability to enforce the law, reductions in staffing, budget cuts and limited ability to attend continuing education.

Making it work

Through the public-private partnership maintained through ASDSO, the challenges can be faced. Working together, the states, the federal agencies that own or regulate dams, the private sector members, especially the members of the ASDSO Affiliate Member Advisory Committee, the support of the National Dam Safety Programme at DHS, FEMA, and the partner organisations, such as the National Watershed Coalition and the American Society of Civil Engineers, we can significantly reduce the likelihood of future catastrophic dam failures.

Author Info:

For more information contact: Association of State Dam Safety Officials, 450 Old Vine St., Lexington, KY 40507, 859-257-5140. Email: http://www.damsafety.org


Table 1