By Jay Landers

Legislation recently introduced in the Senate would reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program, which expired at the end of the federal government’s fiscal year 2023. Overseen by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Dam Safety Program comprises a partnership among states, federal agencies, and other parties that works to reduce the risk to human life, property, and the environment from dam-related hazards.

Supported by ASCE and other dam safety advocates, the Senate bill also would update certain provisions of the National Dam Safety Program to simplify efforts by participants to obtain funding from the key program. The introduction of the bill comes amid a time of growing dam rehabilitation needs across the United States.

Growing needs

In its 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, ASCE assigned a grade of D to the nation’s dams, citing inadequate funding for the burgeoning maintenance and repair needs for the aging sector.

More recently, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials released a report titled The Cost of Rehabilitating Dams in the U.S. In the report, ASDSO estimates that the cost to rehabilitate the nation’s nearly 89,000 nonfederal dams totals $157.5 billion.

Of this amount, $34.1 billion is needed for the rehabilitation of high-hazard-potential dams, which are dams the failure or misoperation of which would probably cause loss of human life. During the past decade, the number of these dams has increased nearly 20% to more than 16,000, primarily as a result of growing downstream development, according to ASDSO’s report.

Although it expired on Sept. 30, the National Dam Safety Program remains active. However, congressional failure to reauthorize the program does come with certain negative consequences. “Since there is no formal authorization anymore of the program, it makes it difficult to receive future annual appropriations,” says Matthew McGinn, ASCE’s senior manager for government relations.

Key step

On Oct. 24, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., introduced the National Dam Safety Program Reauthorization Act of 2023 (S. 3111). The bipartisan legislation, which has 11 co-sponsors as of mid-November, would reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program through FY 2028.

“As climate change increases the risks of extreme flooding and threatens our nation’s water infrastructure, we cannot afford to go backward in our commitment to address dam safety,” Padilla said in an Oct. 24 news release.

“Of California’s 1,530 dams, more than 800 are classified as high hazard potential,” Padilla continued. “Without consistent maintenance and repair, these dams and thousands of dams across the country will be at risk of failure, jeopardizing lives. We urgently need to reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program so we can keep our nation’s dams up to date and help disadvantaged communities invest in necessary infrastructure repairs.”

ASCE strongly supports S. 3111. “The nation’s 92,000 dams have suffered from decades of deferred maintenance and chronic underfunding, threatening the safety of the communities which they serve,” said Maria C. Lehman, P.E., NAC, ENV SP, F.ASCE, the infrastructure market leader for the United States for GHD and ASCE’s past president, in Padilla’s news release.

“Recent seasons of record flooding and increasing development downstream of rural dams have not helped,” Lehman said. “The introduction of the bipartisan National Dam Safety Program Reauthorization Act is an important step to ensuring states have what they need to monitor the thousands of dams in their communities.”

ASDSO also favors the bill. “Reauthorization of this important program will continue federal leadership and needed funding support to reduce the risks associated with dam failure,” said Sharon Tapia, P.E., M.ASCE, the association’s president, in the Oct. 24 news release. “We encourage Congress to support proposed improvements to the law which will make it more effective across all states.”

Helping underserved communities

In reauthorizing the National Dam Safety Program, S. 3111 would maintain its existing authorized funding level of $13.9 million per year. However, annual appropriations for the program have fallen short of this sum historically. For example, the program received $9.7 million in FYs 2022 and 2023, McGinn says.

Padilla’s legislation also would make certain changes to the existing High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program, which FEMA administers. Created by Congress in 2016, the program provides grant funding to states and territories that have enacted state dam safety programs. Such grants may be used to rehabilitate nonfederal dams that have been classified as high hazard potential by the states or territories in which they are located. To be eligible, such dams must have emergency action plans that have been approved by their state or territory dam safety agencies. The dams also must fail to meet minimum dam safety standards of their states or territories and pose unacceptable risk to the public.

Among its proposed changes to the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program, S. 3111 would waive the existing 35% cost-share requirement for what the bill calls “small disadvantaged communities.” S. 3111 defines the term to mean a “community with a population of less than 50,000 that has a median household income of less than 80% of the statewide median household income,” according to the bill.

Such a change would eliminate a “major hurdle” to program participation facing smaller, less affluent communities, says Cody Holt, the government affairs manager for ASDSO.

“Many of the communities that own dams are not in a financial position to participate in a program with such a high cost-share percentage,” Holt says. “Removing this requirement will allow these underserved communities to get the assistance they need to repair and rehabilitate the dams under their ownership.” 

Ultimately, ensuring that underserved communities can access the grant funding to rehabilitate high-hazard-potential dams confers benefits that extend beyond the communities themselves, McGinn says. “If grant funds aren't available for rehabilitation of these dams, then (small disadvantaged communities) could take pretty significant consequences from a dam failure,” he says. “It could also place increased costs on the federal government for recovery assistance in the event of a dam failure.”

Another change

As part of another change that aims to simplify the process of obtaining funding from the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program, S. 3111 would modify another existing requirement that sometimes trips up potential funding recipients. Currently, states that receive grant funding may award it to governmental or nonprofit organizations that apply on behalf of dam owners.

However, the existing law requires that such “subrecipients” provide “assurance” that the dam owner “will carry out a plan for maintenance of the dam during the expected life of the dam,” according to the National Dam Safety Act.

The problem with this arrangement is that subrecipients that are not the owners of the dam to be rehabilitated “may not be able to provide this assurance,” Holt says. To rectify this situation, S. 3111 “would make it clear that operation and maintenance is the responsibility of the dam owner and that a commitment from the dam owner to the subrecipient must be made as a condition for application,” Holt says.

Looking ahead

Similar, though not identical, legislation was introduced in the House in early August. Introduced by Rep. Chuck Edwards, R-N.C., the National Dam Safety Program Reauthorization Act (H.R. 5104) would reauthorize the program through FY 2028, but it does not contain any of the policy provisions included as part of S. 3111.

Supporters of the effort to reauthorize the program are enthusiastic about its chances. “There is strong bipartisan support in both chambers for reauthorizing and amending the National Dam Safety Program,” Holt says.

With Congress looking to pass a Water Resources Development Act in 2024, the Senate and House bills likely will be taken up as part of that broader effort to authorize water resources projects, McGinn says. “We think that these bills are in a good position to ultimately make it across the finish line,” he says.

This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.