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Policy Statement 280 - Responsibility for Dam Safety


Approved by the Energy, Environment, and Water Policy Committee on February 13, 2017 
Approved by the Public Policy Committee on June 5, 2017
Adopted by the Board of Direction on July 29, 2017


The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) supports enactment of state and federal legislation to protect the health and welfare of citizens from the catastrophic impact 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 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.
  • Full funding of the high hazard a national dam rehabilitation and repair funding program established in the 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.


ASCE's 2017 Infrastructure Report Card reported that there are more than 5,800 deficient dams, including more than 2,100 high hazard potential dams, the failure of which would threaten human lives. These dams are used to provide power generation, flood control, water supply, recreation, navigation, and environmental protection. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that it will require an investment of $21.6 billion to repair these aging, yet critical, high-hazard potential dams. 

While some state and federal efforts have been taken to reduce these hazards, the national dam safety program is inadequately funded. The authority, staffing, and funding of state dam safety programs vary significantly and many are grossly underfunded. Approximately ninety percent of the nearly 90,580 dams listed in the 2016 National Inventory of Dams are or should be regulated by the states.  State programs continue to require federal assistance and greater support from state legislators to improve the programs in order to protect lives, property, and other uses that are provided by the dams.

Dam safety issues are dynamic. Spillway capacity requirements may increase as a result of better rainfall and runoff data. Hazards increase as areas downstream develop and become more populated. Structural portions of dams, including impact basins, spillways, and outlet works, deteriorate with time.

Federal assistance to state programs as well as training, research and public awareness initiatives to improve dam safety are provided through the National Dam Safety Program administered through FEMA. This program is small but very effective at unifying the federal and state agencies overseeing dam safety in the U.S. Yet, it is continually under-funded and remains a relatively low priority for FEMA.

Security of dams continues to be a critical component of dam safety. Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to identify dams as potential targets.  As a result, more attention has been given to the more than 21,000 high and significant hazard potential non-federal dams under state regulation.

Public attention to the security and safety of dams varies, rising for short periods immediately following failures and waning thereafter. State and federal dam safety programs are needed to provide continuous vigilance in ways that are organized, methodical and timely.


Our nation's dams provide power generation, flood control, water supply, irrigation, recreation, navigation, and environmental protection. Thousands 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 and advancing scientific knowledge for predicting flooding, earthquakes, and dam failures.

ASCE Policy Statement 280
First Approved 1981