Seattle City and Light, Diablo Dam | Dam Safety 2019
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Dam Safety Awareness Day

Risk-Informed Decision Making and Dams — We Can’t Afford to Wait to Take Action

As recent headlines indicate, dams can provide both benefits and risks to the communities they serve. 

The dam industry is moving away from standards-based design to a new paradigm that evaluates a range of potential failure modes, assesses the probability of failure and considers the consequences of a dam’s poor performance. This risk-informed process results in a community and dam owner gaining a greater appreciation for the level of risk they can tolerate; in dam lingo, we call those Tolerable Risk Guidelines. 

So, on National Dam Safety Awareness Day, take a second look at the dams serving your community. Learn about the benefits, risks and consequences, then make an informed decision regarding maintenance, upgrades or decommissioning the dam.

National Dam Safety Awareness Day was created to commemorate the tragic loss of life following the South Fork Dam Failure near Johnston, Pennsylvania, in 1889. This tragic dam failure began a movement that ultimately resulted in passage of the National Dam Safety Act in October 1996. It’s hard to believe it took over 100 years to establish a dam safety program following such a horrific event. 

The dam safety industry continues to face new obstacles and opportunities in our quest for improving the safety of these critical infrastructure systems. Fortunately, the recent dam failure in Michigan resulted in no loss of life, but property damage was significant and public confidence was shaken in the dam owner’s ability to operate dams safely.

In 2019, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service had $27 million in combined grant funding available to non-federal dam owners. That same year, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials published a report estimating that a total of $70 billion is needed to rehabilitate our inventory of dams. While it is not fully a federal responsibility, dam rehabilitation would take nearly 2,600 years at this rate of spending. 

Many of these dams were initially federally funded as they provided both national and local benefits. It is time for local, state and federal dam safety leaders to address this growing public safety need and insist that improving the safety of our dams becomes a national, state and local priority.