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Policy Statement 280 - Dam Safety, Repair, Retrofit, and Rehabilitation

 
Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on December 18, 2019
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on May 18, 2020
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 11, 2020

Policy

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 of 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 jurisdictions to meet, at a minimum, the standards of Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety and provide sufficient security.
  • Enactment of state legislation to authorize an appropriate agency and commit sufficient resources to undertake a program of dam safety for non-federally owned or regulated dams (non-power producing dams) that, at a minimum, meets the definition of a dam safety program in the Water Resources and Reform Development Act of 2014. State legislation should follow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Model State Dam Safety Program.
  • 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 to help address climate change by supporting the integration of variable solar and wind power into the U.S. electric grid.
  • Full funding of the high hazard a national dam rehabilitation and repair funding program established in the 2016 Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WINN) Act to cost share repairs to publicly owned, nonfederal, high-hazard dams.
  • 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.

Issue

There are more than 90,000 existing dams in the United States  - about 2500 are power producing and the rest non-powered. As such, fewer than 10% of U.S. dams are federally regulated, either by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which oversees non-federal U.S. power producing dams or the federal agency owners of U.S. government dams. Most U.S. dams are, instead, regulated by states under individual dam safety programs. Across the nation, 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.

As of 2018, the average age of publicly and privately owned dams identified in the National Inventory of Dams is 57 years, with over 15,600 of those dams classified as high hazard potential due to their ability to result in property or loss of life if a failure occurred.  ASCE's 2017 Infrastructure Report Card reported that there are more than 5,800 deficient dams, including more than 2,170 high hazard potential dams. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it will require an investment of $23.8 billion to repair these aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams.

Dam safety issues are dynamic. Nearly 70% of all dams will be more than 50 years old in 2020. 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 and remains a relatively low priority for FEMA. 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.

While most infrastructure facilities (roads, bridges, sewer systems, etc.) are owned by public entities, most dams in the United States, approximately 65%, are privately owned. The safety and liability of the 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 WIIN Act of 2016 provided the authorization for the High Hazard Dam Rehabilitation Program as a means to help finance repairs, rehabilitation, or removal required for high hazard, public owned dams; however, funding assistance for repairs to privately owned dams is not addressed.

Rationale

Across our nation, dams serve many diverse and important roles including electricity generation, flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, and recreation. However, many of our nation's dams are in need of rehabilitation to meet current design and safety standards. They are not only aging but are subject to stricter criteria as a result of increased downstream development as well as advancing scientific knowledge related to flooding, earthquakes, and potential dam failure modes.

ASCE Policy Statement 280
First Approved 1981


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