Despite having been told as much by taxi drivers, hotel staff and anyone else who recognised my accent, I was still surprised by how much Boston felt like a European city, reminding me of my native London in particular. But with its busy harbour and distinctive skyline, it proved to be a memorable and unique place to visit, and its World Trade Center served as an impressive venue for ASDSO’s annual conference.

The opening session of Dam Safety 06, moderated by current outgoing ASDSO president Kenneth Smith, shrugged off the sad connotations of being on the date of 11 September and introduced the conference with a lively and fun mock-game show, complete with quipping host, bright graphics, sound effects and, of course, two battling teams. It was Officers versus Enlisted in an ASDSO ‘Family Feud’, based on the format of the popular US quiz show. It was a light-hearted way of recognising the work and efforts of the organisation over the previous 12 months, acknowledging its affiliates and members, and showing the steps made by various US states in developing their dam safety.

This report focuses on papers that aimed to better prepare dam safety professionals for the event of a dam catastrophe – be it through the proper establishment of an emergency action plan (EAP), a checklist for arriving onsite at a crisis or (to extend the theme further) by providing the means to identify dams that need to be dealt with early to avoid failure down the line.

High hazard EAPs

Ideally, any functioning dam will have an up-to-date EAP, for the purposes of determining and communicating the emergency level of the structure, and identifying who/what is at risk and what action would need to be taken in an unusual or emergency event.

‘Development of a New NRCS Sample Emergency Action Plan for Earthen High Hazard Dams’ charts a joint effort between the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and ASDSO to develop a sample EAP for high hazard dams. Its authors are Larry W. Caldwell P.E. and William Irwin P.E. from NRCS (a Watershed Specialist from Stillwater, Okalahoma and a National Design Engineer from Washington, DC respectively) and Lori. C Spragens, Executive Director of the ASDSO at Lexington, Kentucky.

The project came about when, in 2003, it was recognised that the sample EAP and guidance in the latest version of the NRCS Operation and Maintenance manual needed to be updated and improved (it is emphasised throughout the paper that an EAP should be a ‘living document’ and, as such, continue to grow and change). Taking advantage of its formal partnering relationship with ASDSO, NRCS asked the organisation to help it prepare a newer version.

ASDSO led the establishment of a 10-person inter-agency team, which included three state dam safety officers, three federal agency representatives, two emergency management specialists (non-engineers trained in emergency response) and one person representing dam owners. The team met once in March 2004, and six further times via teleconferences as the EAP was drafted and reviewed. The organisation also oversaw research into existing EAPs and literature written about the subject, as well as a survey of state dam safety officials to ascertain their experiences with the activation of EAPs.

The sample EAP is built around five stages: detecting the unusual or emergency situation; determining the appropriate emergency level (from one to three, increasing in danger); notifying the appropriate persons (depending on the emergency level); taking action; then ‘terminating’ the event, in the sense of being satisfied that the situation is stable and that follow-up procedures are completed.

As aforementioned, the paper insists that the EAP be allowed to grow and develop. This is satisfied in the sample EAP by stressing the importance of periodic reviews, updating, training and exercising. A review should be the responsibility of the dam owner/operator, and should mainly consist of ensuring that all contact details are still correct and that those applicable know where the EAP is kept. In addition, a test of the EAP should be carried out every five years, with the facilitator presenting a theoretical emergency scenario and the participants discussing what they would do at each stage of the event.

As well as offering hints and tips on how to make an EAP easier to use, the paper presents a guide for preparing such a document:

•Complete a breach inundation study to determine the consequences should the dam fail.

•Establish the following individuals who are responsible for implementing the EAP: an emergency management official, the dam operator’s representative, a technical representative and state dam safety representatives.

•Determine the roles and responsibility of the Incident Commander and the media contact as identified in the EAP.

•Prepare maps and gather technical data.

•Complete the preparation of the EAP document, including the presence of site-specific information on the pages indicated.

•Assemble the EAP document in a notebook, with divider tabs put between sections for easy access.

•Distribute the draft EAP to the emergency management officials, dam safety officials, and technical representatives. Incorporate their comments as appropriate, and arrange an onsite review of the dam with relevant parties.

•Obtain signatures of all officials with responsibilities for implementing the EAP.

•Hand deliver copies (do not mail them) to those who have an official need and responsibility to implement the EAP, and keep a record of who has a copy.

To illustrate the results of the NRCS/ASDSO collaboration, the sample EAP is included with the paper, and although it focuses on one particular (fictitious) dam, it is adaptable enough to be customised to fit site-specific requirements. The sample EAP has now been distributed to NRCS State Conservation Engineers and Watershed Program Leaders, the ASDSO board, the National Watershed Coalition and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) EAP Task Group, for their review and comment. When finalised, it will be implemented into NRCS policy and used to assist local communities and landowners in creating their own EAPs. ASDSO plans to use it in its own training materials and during an upcoming seminar; the organisation will also consider the sample as the Model State Dam Safety Program (FEMA 316) is updated.

Dam crisis checklist

Despite the severity of such an event, the unfortunate fact remains that those responsible for dealing with a dam-related emergency may not be properly equipped to deal with the situation efficiently. The paper ‘Dam Emergency Response: Suggestions For a Dam Safety Engineer’s Toolkit and Checklist’, by Chad W. Cox P.E. and David M. Leone, P.E. of GZA GeoEnvironmental Incorporated, proposes some suggestions for a ‘rapid-response’ toolkit to help dam safety engineers who find themselves faced with such a task.

The catalyst for this project was events in October 2005 and May 2006 that saw heavy rains cause distress at multiple dams across the northeastern US states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In dealing with the situations, a range of both government and private dam safety professionals were called out to immediately respond to the emergencies, in operations that, the paper says, could have certainly been managed more smoothly – sometimes an engineer would be heading straight from home to a dam he had never even seen before; sometimes, either alone or in teams, engineers were asked to make rapid assessments of the situation at hand (what to do, evaluating the potential risks to the dam, downstream property and public safety and so on) and make immediate decisions about the course of action. This spur-of-the-moment way of working is hardly ideal.

Overall, the crises were successfully concluded without any dam break-related fatalities or major downstream property damage, despite at least one dam failure and several near-misses. But the authors state in their paper that, ‘these situations, along with last year’s Hurricane Katrina experience, did point out the need for engineers and dam safety professionals to be ready to mobilize rapidly and on a large, state-wide scale to evaluate multiple situations and provide recommendations for actions which protect dams, property, and public safety.’

Cox and Leone set out to provide suggestions, the ‘toolkit and checklist’, to help in these emergency situations – although they insist that the ideas are not comprehensive or complete but could instead act as a starting point to spur debate and deliberation amongst the dam safety community.

To help dilute the uncertainties dam safety personnel face, five steps are proposed to deal with a potential dam safety emergency: preparation; assessment; monitoring; response; and post-action documentation and follow-up.

Preparation is of the utmost importance. The dam safety officer must arrive on site with as much background knowledge on both the structure and the situation as possible; the paper recommends as little as fifteen minutes to half an hour worth of checking as invaluable, rather that than turning up more immediately but less well-equipped. Ideally, anyone responding to a dam emergency would want to know/have seen summary information – design or ‘as built’ drawings; previous inspection reports; the operations and maintenance manual and the EAP; as well as having the right equipment for the job and a support team (if possible).

The first order of business when actually arriving at the dam site is to make an assessment. The paper suggests the following list of actions to be taken immediately: assess potential threats to public safety, the primary purpose of any such situation; establish a chain of command and lines of communication; notify whoever needs to know what is happening (an EAP should, of course, contain such a list); establish baselines, measuring and assessing the state of the dam; document initial conditions to have a point of reference; establish the limits of potential downstream impacts; reconnoitre downstream areas; and estimate the watershed/reservoir response.

The next step is to set up a monitoring programme – perhaps the most important activity performed by a dam safety professional. Hopefully impoundment levels, seepage, movement and so on will be found to be stable or receding, in which case the situation changes from one which requires emergency response to one that needs expedited repairs. But failing this best-case scenario, close and frequent monitoring needs to be carried out, to see if conditions are changing and whether it is for better or worse.

Next, the appropriate response must be taken. The big decision is, obviously, whether evacuation is necessary. If so, an existing EAP with inundation maps can be used in determining the area to be evacuated and the media can be alerted. Once whether to evacuate or not has been established, a decision must be made about what to do to the structure itself; it may be necessary to carry out emergency repairs, or perhaps no immediate action is needed beyond continued monitoring.

Finally, the post-action documentation and follow-up stage. It is crucial to learn from all emergencies, henceforth a dam safety inspector or engineer needs to make sure a written report is made, preferably with visual aids like photographs or sketches. Any recommendations for further action that the inspector/engineer has should be included, with copies left with the appropriate parties.

Since the situations in the two US states are in no way unique, the authors feel their ideas could be a useful tool for any dam safety personnel, and can hopefully lead to an improvement in efficiency in crisis situations and, ultimately, the saving of lives and property.

Prevention as the best cure

In contrast to the previous paper, which dealt with what to do when a dam crisis occurs, the next piece advocates avoiding disaster before it happens by taking the correct action early on. It is called ‘Avoiding Dam Breaches Through Pre-emptive Removal & Public Awareness’, and is by Laura Wildman, P.E., Director of River Science, American Rivers – Northeast Field Office, Glastonbury, Connecticut; Stephanie Lindloff, Associate Director of Dam Programs, American Rivers – Mid-Atlantic Field Office, Albany, New York; and James MacBroom, P.E., Vice President, Milone & MacBroom, Cheshire, Connecticut.

The paper stresses the importance of paying attention to old and often decommissioned dams that, despite (or even because of) no longer serving their original purpose, can nevertheless have detrimental impacts. In the area that the authors are located – again, the northeast of the US – there are a number of small mill dams that were built between 1700 and 1900 for water supply and power. Many were abandoned when steam engines and electric power replaced water wheels and turbines, and have been all but forgotten. But every year, floodwaters breach many of these old and un-maintained dams, whether through overtopping, seepage or displacement. Such uncontrolled breaches can be hugely damaging to both downstream property and the ecology of the river, especially if toxic sediments are released.

The example of the near-failure of the 12ft (3.65m) high Whittenton Pond dam in Massachusetts is given: 2000 people were evacuated, the dam was removed at a huge cost and then hastily replaced – despite the old dam having no economical value. Increased vigilance and permanent solutions when it comes to the oversight of dams that have ‘outlived their usefulness’ needs to be adopted, insists the paper, rather than the regrettable but recurring practice of solving the short term solution whilst prolonging the long term danger.

Thus the paper recommends a ‘pre-emptive management approach’ that is proactive, not reactive. All in all it has 19 ‘critical steps’, which have been grouped together here into seven sub-categories:

Accurate information: Steps one, eight and 16 deal with making sure dams are inventoried and monitored studiously, and that hazard classification levels and runoff statistics are up to date.

Enforcement: Steps two and three state that the role of the state Dam Safety Office be clearly defined and that it should be able to remove ‘orphaned’ dams or dams in poor condition without this leading to costly and time-consuming legal battles.

Economic issues: Steps four, five, 13, 14 and 15 deal with financial matters. Dam safety offices need to be adequately staffed and funded, both to monitor and to remove/repair their dams; economic justification should be sought if taxpayers’ money is being used to repair a dam; FEMA funds should be invested ‘to prevent future damages, not to perpetuate them’; and all efforts should ensure that the individual or the group of individuals that value or benefit from the dam are the ones responsible for its maintenance and liability.

The process of dam removal: Steps six, seven, nine and 10 all encourage the setting up of state programmes to remove ‘problem’ dams pre-emptively. Also, they say that this means the state dam safety office/dam owner would benefit from partnering with the relevant non-governmental organisation, other state and federal agency or concerned party. The regulatory process for dam removal needs to be streamlined to make it smoother and quicker, and states should initiate a ‘general permit’ or waiver for the simpler dam removal projects.

Public knowledge: Step 11 deals with making sure the public is kept informed about the status of their nearby dams. This includes when a dam is at risk, as well as the changing situation if a crisis does hit. Step 12 says that the appropriate technology and internet resources should be utilised so that data can be easily accessed.

Environmental awareness: Step 17 is concerned with incorporating environmental and human health hazards (resulting from the release of contaminated sediments behind a breached dam) into dam classifications.

•The final two steps, 18 and 19, stress the importance of education, making sure that current and future potential dam owners are made fully aware of their responsibilities and liability.

To summarise, the authors hope that through their ideas, the concept of dam removal as an approach to dam safety can be institutionalized so that the consequences of a dam breach can either be better dealt with or, ideally, prevented.


The ASDSO Dam Safety conference was as enjoyable and informative as ever. The proceedings this year were really in keeping with the current climate in the US, with dams discussed in relation to both Hurricane Katrina and the threat of terrorist activity, which has been so pertinent since events five years ago. As always, tragic events serve as a catalyst to remind us of the importance of diligent safety work, in the hope that there will be fewer disasters to jolt our memories in the future. But if the correct steps are taken early on, perhaps such events can be more often avoided altogether.

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