Living with the risk of failure

13 December 2013



IWP&DC interviews Lori C Spragens, Executive Director of ASDSO, to find out the latest dam safety issues across the US.


IWP&DC: Please give a brief introduction to ASDSO and the work that you carry out.
ASDSO: The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) is a US non-profit association headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. It was established in 1984 as a forum for state regulators but its ranks now include more than 3000 members from the broader dam safety community, including federal dam safety professionals, dam owners and operators, engineering consultants, emergency managers, manufacturers, suppliers, academia, contractors, and others interested in improving dam safety.

ASDSO's mission is to advance and improve the safety of dams by:

  • Supporting the dam safety community and state dam safety programmes.
  • Raising awareness of dam safety issues.
  • Facilitating cooperation.
  • Providing a forum for the exchange of information.
  • Representing dam safety interests before governments.
  • Providing outreach programmes.
  • Creating a unified community of dam safety advocates.

Since most dams in the US are regulated by state dam safety programmes, that's where our primary emphasis has been. We work to improve the effectiveness of state programmes by providing training, information resources, and networking opportunities to state personnel, as well as for dam owners and operators. We advocate for state dam safety programmes at the state and federal levels and work closely with the American Society of Civil Engineers to coordinate annual legislative "Fly-Ins" to Washington, DC. This brings hundreds of civil engineers to Capitol Hill to educate policymakers on the importance of maintaining US infrastructure.

We also facilitate cooperation and networking among our membership and various partner organisations. For instance, we are working closely with the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies and the Association of State Floodplain Managers on issues that affect flood risk management.

What are the main concerns for dam safety across the US?
Driving all activities within the dam safety community is the risk of dam failure. Although the majority of dams in the US have responsible owners and are properly maintained, still many dams age without upkeep and fail every year. From 1 January 2005 through June 2013, state dam safety programmes reported 173 dam failures and 587 "incidents" - episodes that, without intervention, would likely have resulted in dam failure.

The increasing number of high hazard potential dams is a real concern. There are approximately 4500 more high hazard potential dams in the US than there were a little more than a decade ago. The problem is not that more are being built, but that more development is occurring downstream. Dam safety regulators generally have no control over local zoning issues or developers' property rights. So this issue continues to worry regulators as the "hazard creep" trend persists.

Another major concern is the high cost of maintaining and upgrading dams, particularly in combination with the issues of private ownership and public funding. Ownership makes dams a unique part of the national infrastructure. While most infrastructure facilities in the US -- roads, bridges, sewer systems, schools, and so on -- are owned by public entities, the majority of dams are privately owned. A dam's owner is solely responsible for the safety and liability of the dam and for financing its upkeep, upgrade and repair.
According to a recent study by ASDSO, the total cost to rehabilitate the nation's non-federal high-hazard potential dams is about US$18.2B. That's up by about US$8B since ASDSO did the first study in 2003.

Lack of funding for dam upgrades is a serious national problem, especially within the private sector. Rehabilitation of dams can range in cost from the low thousands to millions, and responsibility for these expenses lies with owners, many of whom cannot afford these costs. Although some states offer loan programmes, funding assistance, through government or private sources, is minimal at best.
And despite significant advances over the past 30 years, lack of adequate authority and resources for a number of state dam safety programmes remains a concern.

Although most states have legislative authority to carry out a comprehensive dam safety programme, many are underfunded and/or limited 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.

How do these problems differ to ten years ago?
Let's look at the issue of upgrading or rehabilitating dams. We now know more about the condition of dams as US dam safety state and federal leaders have challenged themselves to collect more detailed information about dams. With a slow but upward movement of government budgets and personnel devoted to dam safety regulation, the number of dams identified with deficiencies is increasing. Unfortunately, we don't see the same trend in dams getting rehabilitated. That has stayed steady and is still a major challenge.

The good news is work is underway to reduce the risks. We are seeing a marked improvement in the development of emergency action plans (EAP) for dams across the country. The EAP helps the dam owner understand risks and aids understanding when there are issues with the dam and how to act accordingly to minimise the impact of a failure or incident downstream. Experience has shown that, when the unthinkable happens, the EAP is a valuable tool.

What will the next ten years will bring?
If the current climate within federal government continues into future years, there could be little support or funding for a coordinated effort to regulate dams properly or provide assistance to state dam safety programmes. That is not to say that many federal agencies that own or regulate specific types of dams in the US are not carrying out their missions properly; many are - even with limited support from Congress. Similarly, many state governments are carrying out strong programmes.

ASDSO and other non-government organisations will continue to try to educate Congress and state leaders about the importance of strong dam safety programmes so that we don't see a downward turn in policy oversight in the next decade.

On a more technical front, most dam safety experts are beginning to see the urgency of understanding how climate change will affect dams. We are seeing efforts across the nation to re-calculate hydrologic and hydraulic predictions based on new information about rainfall predictions.

How does ASDSO feel about the American Society of Civil Engineers' recent D grade for dams on its Report Card? What needs to be done to improve on this in the future?
We know the D grade is a fair assessment of the status of the nation's dam infrastructure, and we believe it represents an important wake-up call for state and federal officials, dam owners and people who live and work near dams.

Solutions from the ASCE Report Card include:

  • Reauthorise the National Dam Safety Programme by 2014 and fully fund the programme for each year under the reauthorisation.
  • Establish a national dam rehabilitation and repair funding program to cost share repairs to publicly owned, non federal, high-hazard dams.
  • Develop emergency action plans for every high hazard dam by 2017.
  • Implement a national public awareness campaign to educate individuals on the location and condition of dams in their area.
  • Encourage incentives to governors and state legislatures to provide sufficient resources and regulatory authorities to their dam safety programmes.
  • Require federal agencies that own, operate or regulate dams to meet the standards of Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety.

Do you feel that state-wide dam safety is taken seriously across the US?
Among those who understand the risks and benefits of dams, yes. Accordingly, there is much emphasis these days on raising public awareness of dam safety, and this is needed. But this effort must not detract from the urgent need to ensure that existing dams are maintained and upgraded in accordance with current safety standards.

Is this reflected in the funding for dam safety work?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Large sums may be allocated for rehabilitation of critical federal projects, such as Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky, but funding sources are lacking for privately owned dams, even in states that offer low-interest loans for dam repairs and upgrades.

There is a national consensus on the importance of maintaining and upgrading existing dams, which is what's needed. But, there is a lack of funding from government sources and from dam owners' sources. Inspecting dams and warning downstream communities is important, but those activities fall short of the goal of preventing dam failures.

Many state programmes lack adequate funding. State budgets for dam safety range from US$0 in Alabama to $11M in California. But the average annual state dam safety budget is about US$688,000. The average number of regulated dams per state exceeds 1700 while the average number of dam inspectors per state is about eight; this means that each dam inspector is responsible for overseeing the safety of more than 200 existing dams, plus the additional responsibilities of overseeing new construction.

What would you say are the best and not so good states in relation to a commitment to dam safety?
At the top of the "not so good" list is Alabama, which has no state dam safety programme whatsoever. Fortunately, it is the only state in this category. Generally speaking, the effectiveness of any state dam safety programme is commensurate with the quality of legislative support within that state. That support is continually in flux as state administrations change. States that have experienced devastating dam failures -- California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, for example -- have relatively strong dam safety programmes, as their policymakers and citizens are more likely to be aware of dams and dam safety. But the lessons of dam failures are often quickly forgotten, as evidenced in cuts to state programmes where failures have occurred in recent years. Some states have seen cuts or have been threatened with cuts in program authorities or funding including Texas, Virginia, and Iowa.

On your website you list the anniversary of several dam failures. What steps forward do you think the industry has taken since such events?
Legislation often follows dam failures. Some examples include:

  • California - St. Francis Dam failure 1928.
  • Pennsylvania - Austin Dam failure, 1911 Laurel Run Dam failure, 1977.
  • Hawaii - Kaloko Dam failure 2006.
  • New Jersey - funding programme following floods in 2008.

The National Dam Safety Programme was also passed at the federal level after a rash of failures in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Failure investigations lead to improvements in design, construction, monitoring, etc. The US dam safety community is constantly studying failures and improving technical standards for dams. For example:

  • The Taum Sauk Dam failure led to improvements in instrumentation and monitoring techniques and equipment.
  • The Teton Dam failure lead to better design and construction.
  • The Hadlock Pond Dam failure lead to improved construction and quality control standards.

Are you confident that you can you stop history repeating itself?
Dams are designed far better now than they used to be. When older dams are rehabilitated to meet current standards the risk of failure goes down. But, the confidence level goes down when we realise that so many older dams are ageing without the benefit of rehabilitation. Our goal is to identify these structures, rate their condition and find the funds to upgrade them. This cannot be done without everyone playing their role:

  • Legislators must provide strong policies and funding.
  • Owners must understand their responsibilities to the safety of the downstream public.
  • Engineers and regulators must continue to not only make the improvement happen, but must educate the public and policymakers about the urgent need.


Lori C. Spragens is the Executive Director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Email: [email protected]

ASDSO has several other initiatives underway of interest to the international community. Within its Dam Safety Training Programme it is now doing monthly technical webinars. These two-hour webinars can be viewed live or purchased as an archived recording. The on-line Dam Safety Resource Centre is accessible to all users and includes a large bibliography of dam safety engineering references. ASDSO has also developed a booklet to assist with public education about dam safety. The e-reader version is available at www.livingneardams.org.

For more information about ASCE's Report Card for US dams see pp48-50 of the June 2013 issue of IWP&DC.



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