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In order to improve public safety and resilience, the risk and consequences of dam failure must be lowered. Progress requires better planning for mitigating the effects of failures; increased regulatory oversight of the safety of dams; improving coordination and communication across governing agencies; and the development of tools, training, and technology.

Dam failures not only risk public safety, they also can cost our economy millions of dollars in damages. Failure is not just limited to damage to the dam itself. It can result in the impairment of many other infrastructure systems, such as roads, bridges, and water systems. When a dam fails, resources must be devoted to the prevention and treatment of public health risks as well as the resulting structural consequences. For this reason, emergency action plans (EAPs) for use in the event of an impending dam failure or other uncontrolled release of water are vital. The number of high-hazard potential dams with an EAP has increased in recent years; as of 2015 77% of dams have EAPs – up from 66% in the 2013 Report Card and marked progress toward the national goal of 100%.

Our nation’s dams are owned and operated by many different entities including all levels of government. However more than half are owned by a private entity. The federal government owns 3,381 dams, or approximately 4% of the nation’s dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns only 709 dams, more than half of which are 50 years old. With the majority of dams privately held, these structures likely rely on state dam safety programs for inspection. State dam safety programs have primary responsibility and permitting, inspection, and enforcement authority for more than three-quarters of the nation’s dams. Therefore, state dam safety programs bear a large responsibility for public safety, but unfortunately, many lack sufficient resources, and in some cases, enough regulatory authority, to be effective. The national number of dams per state safety program employee totals 205. For perspective, some of the top state dam safety programs such as California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have less than 135 dams per staff member (the California Division of Safety of Dams, a robust state dam safety program with regulatory oversight over many of the nation’s most consequential dams, has only 20 dams per staff member). Despite continued efforts by public safety and engineering advocacy groups, Alabama continues to remain the only state without a dam safety regulatory program.

EAPs play the biggest role in keeping people and property safe in the event of a dam breach or failure. As of 2013, just five states had 100% of high-hazard potential dams with EAPs. Several states are making notable progress on increasing the percentage of dams with EAPs, including Hawaii, which went from having 2 dams with EAPs in 1999 to 120 in 2015.

Innovative approaches in risk management have the potential for seeing the costs of rehabilitation go down. The dam safety engineering practice is moving towards a risk-based decision-making process for the design, rehabilitation, and operation of dams. Risk-based decisions enable the dam owner to better utilize limited funding and prioritize projects by focusing on repairs and operational changes that reduce risk to acceptable levels, thus improving community resilience. Engineers, dam owners, regulators, and emergency management professionals should be engaging communities potentially affected by a dam failure in order to provide a fair portrayal of risk. Through broader community collaboration, stakeholders will be better able to support land use decisions, emergency action planning, and maintenance and rehabilitation funding, which will reduce community risk in the long term.

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