National Dam Safety Awareness Day got its start partly as a way to remember a tragedy, but today the focus is on maintaining the safest structures possible and avoiding the type of failure that took place on May 31, 1889, in Johnstown, Penn. It was on that date that the South Fork Dam failed and an estimated 20 million tons of water flooded the community of Johnstown downstream, killing 2,209 people and causing $17 million worth of damage.
“We are focused on not only awareness of keeping our dams safe, but on keeping people safe around dams,” Federal Emergency Management Agency said in a press release. On National Dam Safety Awareness Day, groups and individuals focus on steps people can take to prevent future dam failures or to lessen the impact of a potential failure, according to FEMA.
FEMA says dam safety is a shared responsibility, and it is a top priority for the Brazos River Authority.
“Every five years, we hire an outside engineering firm to conduct an inspection of each dam,” said Steve Vaughan, emergency safety compliance manager for the BRA. “They look for signs of stress or failure and file a report based on their findings. In addition, our own staff routinely inspect the dams throughout the year. They are trained to detect signs of stress or failure and report any concerns to engineering.”
The BRA submits regular reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Vaughn said. “They review and analyze the reports and conduct their own inspections to ensure the dams are being operated in as safe an environment as possible.”
The BRA also has site security plans that law enforcement officers at each site work to ensure the security of the dams, Vaughn said.
FEMA notes that there are more than 87,000 dams in the United States, and about one-third of these pose a high or significant risk to lives and property if those dams were to fail.
Dams are a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure and all Americans enjoy the benefits they provide, including flood protection, water supply, hydropower, irrigation and recreation,” FEMA reports. “However, our dams are aging, and many are deteriorating, while downstream and upstream populations are increasing. Everyone has a role to play in creating a future where all dams are safer – including dam owners, engineers, community planners/leaders, and federal and state regulators.”
Monitoring the dams is a constant process at each of the BRA reservoirs.
“On a daily basis, all employees watch for any change in the embankment, such as cracks along the crest, any sign of movement or sloughing of the slopes, or excessive or unusual water downstream,” said Davy Moore, Lake Limestone area project manager. “There are documented inspections of the entire dam conducted on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual, and five-year basis. There are also documented inspections performed after an unusually high volume release, or after an unusual occurrence such as a nearby earthquake. During these inspections, mechanical and electrical functions are tested and visual inspections document the integrity of physical structure.”
Moore said keeping people safe is always the top priority. “People should be aware that dams are regulated by state and federal agencies and are operated and maintained with public safety in mind,” he said. “Emergency Action Plans exist for most dams and are regularly updated and reviewed, including table top exercises where different scenarios are practiced to ensure proper response to any unusual event by owners of dams and emergency responders.”
Jeff Posvar, senior project engineer for the BRA, said each of the agency’s three dams have different checklists to ensure they are safe. In addition to reservoir staff inspections, he personally visits each dam once a year for an engineering inspection, although the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires inspections every five years. Other detailed inspections are done on site every month. But beyond that, standards are in place as a matter of routine, he said, and detailed plans have been made so BRA staff, working with state and local officials, know how to deal with nearly every situation that may arise.
“We’ve been very vigilant and the TCEQ has noted good things about our facilities,” Posvar said. “Our employees are doing the right things, and they know what to do whenever they observe something – or don’t see something. Our staff goes above and beyond the basic requirements set by the TCEQ.”
Posvar said the Water Services Department plays a vital role in keeping the dams operating efficiently and safely.
“Water Services does a great job of coordinating everything,” he said. “When a storm comes in at 3 a.m., they’re not lying in bed. They’ve planned things out before the storm and are monitoring the situation throughout the night. This staff are coordinating things at all hours of the day and night, and they do a tremendous job. That’s an element that the public isn’t always aware of. They are the ones making sure everything happens like a well-oiled machine.”
Posvar said detailed plans help staff know what to do each step of the way – even if communications break down.
“Everybody is available at a moment’s notice, and that’s key,” he said. “But the plans even let people know what to do if they can’t get reach someone. There is a very detailed process in place to help keep everyone safe.”
Keeping dams safe is a team effort, and something that is an essential part of what BRA employees on-site are involved in on a continual basis.