Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on November 28, 2022
Approved by the Public Policy and Practice Committee on May 17, 2023
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 22, 2023
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports enactment of state and federal legislation to protect the health and welfare of citizens from potential the catastrophic impacts related to dam failures.
To that end ASCE further supports:
- Continued reauthorization of the National Dam Safety Program and full funding of the program for each year under the reauthorizations.
- Adequate funding for federal agencies to operate, maintain and regulate dams under their jurisdiction to meet, at a minimum, the standards of Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety.
- Full funding of the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program at the authorized amount to cost share repairs for publicly owned, non-federal, high-hazard dams.
- Increased funding and resources for state dam safety programs and ensuring that all 50 states have dam safety programs.
- Expanding the U.S. Army Corps Water Infrastructure Financing Program (CWIFP) eligibility to all dams.
- Incorporation of risk assessments or ranking and priority systems into federal and state dam safety programs to focus dam safety activities on dams that pose the greatest risk to the public, including rehabilitation, retrofit and potential removal for dams no longer economically viable.
- Retrofit of non-powered dams to add generation and produce clean, renewable, carbon free energy.
- Development of emergency action plans for every high-hazard potential dam by 2020 and regular exercising, maintenance and updating of these plans.
- Implementation of a national public awareness campaign to educate individuals on the location and condition of dams in their area.
- Encourage state and federal agencies to meet reporting deadlines to ensure that adequate data on dams are available for policymakers to facilitate decision-making on funding and to promote public awareness.
- Require federal agencies that own, operate, or regulate dams to meet the standards of Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety.
- Encourage improved land use planning at the local level so that communication about how dams affect local areas is more accurately known and considered in future planning.
There are more than 91,000 existing dams in the United States. Over half of these dams (56.4%) are privately owned. Roughly one-third are owned by various levels of government (20% local, 4% state, and 4.7% federal). While the federal government owns or regulates some of the largest dams, most (70%) are regulated by state dam safety offices. Dams serve many diverse and important roles including electricity generation, flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, and recreation but, in some cases, they may no longer be economically viable.
Dams are classified by hazard potential. A high-hazard potential rating does not imply that a dam has an increased risk for failure; it simply means that if failure were to occur, the resulting consequences would likely be a direct loss of human life and extensive property damage. Over the last 20 years, the number of high-hazard potential dams has more than doubled as development steadily encroaches on once rural dams and reservoirs. As the number of high-hazard potential dams has increased, the overall percentage of those dams protected by an Emergency Action Plan has increased as well. As of 2018, 81% of such dams had a plan on file, up 5% from 2015. Unfortunately, due to the lack of investment, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) estimates the number of deficient high-hazard potential dams exceeds 2,300. Approximately 3% of dams supply households and businesses with hydroelectric power, and many of these dams are privately owned by utilities and follow a rigorous operations and maintenance schedule.
ASDSO estimates that an investment of $66 billion will be required to fix the nation’s non-federal dams. Additional estimates show that approximately $27.6 billion will be needed to rehabilitate federal dams.
Dam safety issues are dynamic. As of 2022, the National Inventory of Dams indicates the average age is over 60 years. These dams were designed and constructed with the best engineering and construction methods of their time; however, as scientific and engineering experience increase, many of these dams are no longer able to safely accommodate our current prediction of large floods and earthquakes. Structural portions of dams, including impact basins, spillways, and outlet works, deteriorate over time, and require ongoing maintenance and investment. Hazards increase as areas downstream develop and become more populated, thereby increasing the need to provide dam security and emergency action plans, especially for those classified as high hazard dams.
While some state and federal efforts have been taken to reduce these hazards, the National Dam Safety Program, administered through FEMA, is inadequately funded. This program, despite being small, is very effective at unifying the federal and state agencies overseeing dam safety in the U.S. The authority, staffing, and funding of state level dam safety programs varies significantly. State programs continue to require federal assistance and support from state legislators to improve the programs.
The safety and liability of a dam and financing required for its upkeep, upgrade, and repair are the sole responsibility of the dam owner. This can be a hardship for many private entities with very few resources available to finance the repairs, retrofit, rehabilitation, or removal for non-economically viable dams. The High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program provides a means to help finance repairs, rehabilitation, or removal required for high hazard, public owned dams; however, the program is not fully funded. Additionally, funding assistance for repairs to privately owned dams is not addressed.
Dam failures not only put the public at risk, they can also cost our economy billions of dollars in damages. Failure includes more than the dam’s damage, but can negatively impact many other infrastructure systems, such as roads, bridges, water systems, and other important functions dams provide. When a dam fails, resources must be devoted to the prevention and treatment of public health risks as well as the resulting structural consequences. Civil engineers are responsible for designing, constructing, and overseeing operations of the nation’s dams in a manner that protects people and property downstream. ASCE’s Code of Ethics requires that engineers first and foremost protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
ASCE Policy Statement 280
First Approved 1981