Hidden World of Dam Safety and EAPs

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend and give a paper at the Association of State Dam Safety Officials Southeast Conference in Asheville, NC. Dedicated engineers and state and federal regulatory officials with an interest in dam safety filled the conference. Dam safety is one of those under-appreciated professions.

Did you know there have been over 20 dam failures or near dam failures in the US since 2001? Seepage through the dam, foundation defects, and spillway problems are often the main cause of failure.

One of the most important documents a dam owner can prepare is called an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). This document identifies potential emergency conditions at a dam and specifies preplanned actions to be followed to minimize property damage and loss of life. And more importantly it also contains inundation maps to show the emergency management authorities the critical areas for action in case of an emergency.

So, how many dams have an EAP? Only half of all high hazard dams in the US have an EAP. A dam may be classified as High Hazard because a dam failure may cause loss of life, serious damage to homes, industrial or commercial buildings, main highways or railroads. Some dams may be reclassified as high hazard as development occurs downstream of the dam.

I asked one state regulatory official what was one of the worst EAP that she had seen someone submit. She said one person had written a one page EAP which basically said if there was a problem with a dam, call 911. We can do better than this.

US Dam Failures