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GIVE A DAM

May 31, 2022, is National Dam Safety Awareness Day

Dams are silent protectors, in remote locales, that serve as a source for water, flood control and outdoor recreation. Neglected, without routine safety checks and maintenance, their impairments become invisible and unpredictable — increasing the probability of a potential hazard downstream. 

By Lark Gilmer, USDA NRCS Communications Specialist

HISTORY 

This year marks the 133rd anniversary of the dam breach that took the lives of more than 2,200 people and galvanized the nation to ensure such a tragic event could not happen again. On May 31, 1889, torrential rain and subsequent flooding caused the South Fork Dam to fail near Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Changes in ownership, lack of oversight, and unsound improvements increased the probability of a dam failure rather than prevent one. When the dam gave way, over 20 million tons of water caused a catastrophic torrent downstream. A 40-foot wave traveling 40 miles per hour crashed into Johnstown demolishing the town.

National Dam Safety Awareness Day was created in memoriam to encourage and promote individual and community responsibility for dam safety and provide information on what can be done to prevent future dam failures. Additionally, this day promotes the benefits dams offer to communities. May 31 serves as a reminder to perform inspections, take necessary precautions for climate change patterns, update emergency action and evacuation plans, and share dam safety information with the communities. Dam safety is a shared responsibility. Know your risk, know your role, know the benefits of dams and take action.

Be Dam Aware – learn more 

  • Dams provide many benefits t including bringing water, power, flood control, recreation, and economic opportunities to communities. However, there are risks associated with dams, especially if a failure occurs. 
  • Be aware of dams in your area. Contact your local dam safety official for more information. 
  • Be prepared - Ask your city council for a copy of their Emergency Evacuation Plan and share with your neighbors. 

Since their enactment in 1948, USDA NRCS’ watershed programs have designed and built over 11,870 dams, constructed water storage structures, flood management systems, bank stabilization, relocated property, redirected stream flows, re-established wildlife habitat and more to save lives and protect watersheds. These programs play an important role in advancing the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the USDA NRCS has invested $586.5 Million to address watershed resource concerns including $82 million to address safety and performance issues of high hazard dams.

Learn more about OneUSDA Dam Safety Programs

OneUSDA- Safety First

Following is a list of USDA agencies that provide technical and financial assistance to communities that plan and build dams within the United States and its territories, as well as provide assistance to the dam safety programs.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) – Watershed Programs

  • Watershed Rehabilitation (REHAB) Program’s sole focus is to ensure NRCS constructed dams continue to meet critical dam safety criteria and performance standards OR decommission dams due to dam safety, environmental, or economic reasons. 
  • DamWatch ® is a web-based early warning system that provides real-time monitoring of potential threats to dam safety by sending rainfall, spillway flow, and seismic alerts to essential NRCS staff, sponsors, and emergency managers with vital information. Watershed Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO) Program helps communities design and build sound flood control measures for climate resiliency, economic stability, and watershed restoration.

US Forest Service (USFS)

The Dam Engineering and Management branch of the US Forest Service owns and operates over 1000 dams on National Forest System lands. Of these, approximately 460 are part of the National Inventory of Dams (NID) 50% of all USFS dams indicate recreation and/or wildlife management as their primary purpose.

USDA Agricultural Research Service

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) partners with multiple federal and state agencies, universities, and other entities to support dam safety nationwide. The ARS Hydraulic Engineering Research Unit (HERU) is a unique, world-class facility that allows scientists and engineers to conduct large scale model studies on dam design features as well as downstream erosion reduction techniques. HERU researchers are also working with the ARS Partnerships in Data Innovations (PDI) program to develop and evaluate new technologies for monitoring and inspecting dam conditions. This includes the use of low-cost weather sensor arrays, drones for image collection, and cloud-based data analysis software. The overall goal is to provide improved, cost-effective designs and tools that dam safety programs can use to evaluate, or rehabilitate, the thousands of aging dams and spillways across the U.S more efficiently.

Federal Assistance


Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Assistance for Dam Safety Projects

  • $585 million total for Section 8A grants to States (High Hazard Potential Dam Rehab grants), of which Not Less Than $75M shall be for dam removal
  • $148 million total for Section 8(e) grants to States (state assistance grants)
  • $67 million total under FEMA Operations and Support for dam safety activities and assistance to States under sections 7 through 12 of the National Dam Safety Program Act (all other NDSP areas)
  • $118 million total for NRCS Watershed Rehab Program
  • Rehab WIFIA - $64 million total (includes CWIFP – the new USACE program for low-interest loans for dam repair)
  • NOAA - $492 million for studies including modernized precipitation frequency and probable maximum studies (i.e., nationwide PMP estimates)
  • Approximately $800 million for dam removal projects
  • Approximately $800 million for dam safety, environmental and electric grid upgrades for hydropower dams.

ONLINE RESOURCES

Association of Dam Safety Officials have created a special webpage on their site full of educational information and resources on dam safety.

FEMA – Know your risk, know your role, know the benefits of dams and take action!

National Inventory of Dams (NID)– maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, (USACE)the NID provides a catalog of over 90,000 dams located in the U.S. and its territories. The USACE also has a Dam Safety Program for dams owned and operated by the USACE. Learn more…

Bureau of Reclamation - Under its Dam Safety Program, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) regularly monitors, examines and evaluates the performance of dams in its inventory to ensure facilities do not present unreasonable risks to the public, property, or the environment

Bureau of Land Management

US Fish and Wildlife

Department of Defense

Department of Energy

International Boundary and Water Commission

Bureau of Indian Affairs – Indian Dams Safety Act

Mine Safety and Health Administration

Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement

Nuclear Regulatory Commission