In a bid to identify risks of infrastructure failure, researchers at the US Army Engineer Corps of Engineers (USACE) have rolled out a set of pioneering tools that could reshape the game. With approximately 740 dams and associated structures under its purview, USACE is pushing the envelope to address the vulnerabilities of aging.

In order to effectively operate and maintain those dams, USACE applies risk-informed decision making to evaluate, prioritize and justify dam safety decisions. Using risk information allows the organization to repair its dams in the most effective manner within a constrained budget. To streamline this process, USACE researchers have developed a systemwide approach for assessing risk in flood risk management watersheds.

“A lot of these structures were built 70 to 80 years ago — and in some cases 90 to 100 years ago — and the design lives for most of them was 50 to 75 years,” said Willie Brown, a research civil engineer at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center. “Some of these structures have outlasted what they were supposed to be able to provide — and that's a great thing — but as that continues to be the case, the risk of failing becomes greater and greater. For the communities surrounding them — from a flood risk management perspective — if we don't keep our facilities in good shape, the consequences could be dire.”

The focus of Brown's team is on the likelihood of failure, aiming to revamp the assessment process. The new methodology steps away from the subjective nature of the current system, promising a more transparent and consistent approach. This shift enables a nationwide comparison of facilities, pinpointing the highest-risk assets for targeted resource allocation.

Having already undergone successful trials in diverse case studies across four watersheds, the team is now eyeing a nationwide rollout in collaboration with USACE headquarters.

Complementing this approach is the introduction of the USACE Risk Management Center's (RMC) quantitative risk analysis software, RMC-TotalRisk, to enhance and expedite risk assessments within the flood risk management, planning and dam and levee safety communities of practice. 

Haden Smith, a senior hydrologic engineer with the RMC, underscored the software's versatility, saying: "It can do simple things all the way to the most complex projects.

“In terms of value-added, this tool stands to significantly reduce study costs,” Smith added. “It has an intuitive user interface with very fast runtimes. It allows users to run more alternatives and really dive in. Because it's so fast, they can quickly see cause-and-effect on inputs and outputs. It stands to not only improve the quality of studies going forward, but also reduced the overall time to develop a model.”

The RMC-TotalRisk tool offers an array of risk measures to weigh risk reduction alternatives, upping the ante on dam and levee safety activities. Actively in play in all new dam and levee safety studies at the risk management center, this tool is open to the public, accessible on the RMC website.

Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River in Washington. The US Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains approximately 740 dams and associated structures that provide significant benefits to the nation.