June 10, 2015

As the United States observed National Dam Safety Awareness Day on May 31 and with the reminder of a grade of ‘D’ in dams in the 2013 ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card, AAWRE President Jerry Webb, P.E., D.WRE states the need for the engineering profession to be more vocal and clear on the need for more investment in fixing our dams and in meeting the challenges to maintain our infrastructure in the future.

National Dam Safety Awareness Day occurs each year to commemorate the failure of the South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1889.  The Johnstown disaster was the worst dam failure in the history of the U.S., with more than 2,200 lives lost.  National Dam Safety Awareness Day was created to encourage and promote individual and community responsibility and best practices for dam safety, and what steps people can take to either prevent future catastrophic dam failures or lessen the impact if a failure was to occur.

According to the Infrastructure Report Card on dams- the average age of the 84,000 dams in the U.S. is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise. Many of these dams were built as low-hazard dams protecting undeveloped agricultural land. With an increasing population and greater development below dams, the overall number of high-hazard dams continues to increase, to nearly 14,000 in 2012. The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) estimates that it will require an investment of $21 billion to repair these aging, yet critical, high-hazard dams.

Courtesy of ASCE's 2013 America's Infrastructure Report Card

To help address some of these investment needs, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRD) of 2014 re-authorized the National Dam Safety Program.  While ASCE and ASDSO have made advances to promote dam safety programs, increase awareness, provide training, and fund rehabilitation initiatives, there are still significant investment and awareness needs.

AAWRE President Jerry Webb, who serves as the principal hydrologic and hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remarks:

“There are tens of thousands of dams across the nation--privately, locally, state, tribally and federally operated and maintained.  These dams provide significant, multiple benefits to the nation— our people, businesses, critical infrastructure and the environment.  The benefits include flood risk management, navigation, water supply, hydropower, environmental stewardship, fish and wildlife conservation and recreation.

These dams are part of our nation’s landscape, integral to many communities and critical to watershed management.  Proper operation, maintenance and repair/rehabilitation of this critical infrastructure makes sure these projects deliver their intended benefits while reducing risks to people, property and the environment. 

As part of this industry, we have a moral and professional obligation to also clearly describe the investment needs that will assure that the infrastructure can safely deliver these benefits for the next generation.  Nationally, the needs measure in the tens of billions dollars and owners and responsible government officials alike are voicing concern for increased investments.  We support this as part of the larger set of strategies to manage risk and water resources. 

Under our code of ethics, we have a professional obligation to the public as identified in the first of the ASCE Fundamental Canons which states:

‘Engineers should hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.’

As a practicing, water resources engineer for over four decades, I consider our role of ensuring that our Nation’s infrastructure are properly designed, operated and maintained to continue providing safe, sustainable, benefits to our nation to be our highest priority.  This nation should be proud of what we have accomplished in water resources but we MUST meet the challenges to maintain our infrastructure in the future.”

>Help Improve Dams, Levees and Waterways: Urge congressional leaders now to fully fund the Water Resources Reform and Development Act
>Help Fix the Highway Trust Fund: Urge congressional leaders now to fix the Highway Trust Fund