Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ecology's Dam Safety Office Gets High Marks

But report says state’s aging dams need continual attention and funding

by Lynne D. Geller, Water Resources Communication & Education

When was the last time the importance of well-maintained dams came up in dinner conversation? For most of us, maybe never! Like so much of our state’s infrastructure, the safety of our state’s dams is taken for granted — unless one fails.

So it’s good to know that in the recently released 2013 Report Card for Wasington's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our dams the highest grade of the nine infrastructure areas studied and evaluated.

Ecology’s Dam Safety Office (DSO), part of the Water Resources Program, has regulatory authority for over 1,000 dams. The DSO oversees dams that store more than 10 acre-feet of water. (Picture a football field filled with eight feet of water.)

The ASCE gave our dams a “B”, the only grade above a “C” for Washington. (America’s overall GPA for dams was a “D.”) ASCE evaluates infrastructure for each U.S. state and generates a Report Card every four years. The report also looked at Aviation, Bridges, Drinking Water, Rail, Roads, Schools, Solid and Hazardous Waste, and Transit: the fundamental facilities and systems serving Washington.

But ASCE cautions: “Continued funding of dam safety programs is essential to maintain or improve upon the current level of dam safety in Washington. No funding programs are on the horizon for repairing private dams.” (The majority of regulated dams are privately owned.)

How the DSO helps ensure the prevention of safety problems

The DSO is made up of engineers with specialized expertise. Their three key areas of focus are:

Performing periodic inspections of dams where dam failure could result in loss of life downstream. Regulated dams are categorized by downstream risk: high, significant and low.

Monitoring the construction of new dams and modifications to existing ones. This is done through permitting, plan review and site inspections.

Making sure that dams have useful up-to-date Emergency Action Plans (EAPs), so people are prepared on the chance there is a problem.

Ongoing attention and funding is key to maintaining and improving Washington’s dams

Jerald LaVassar, DSO’s lead engineer, acknowledges the high mark, but reminds us that “keeping dams in good repair is a continuing challenge, especially as our understanding of storms and seismic threats evolves. We can’t take safety for granted. The stakes are high if things go wrong.

“A large proportion of dams in this state are over 50 years old. Ongoing attention and funding is necessary to continue protecting lives and property, both on our part and that of the owners.”

Let’s not wait for something to go wrong before we address continued and increased funding for the safety of dams throughout the state. You know what they say about an ounce of prevention. . . investing in dam safety is an investment that pays off exponentially.

For more information

Ecology’s Dam Safety website: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/dams/dss.html

Association of State Dam Safety Officials website and booklet “Living with Dams: Know Your Risks” — (for people living, working or playing in areas near dams) www.livingneardams.org.

James DeMay, Ecology DSO section manager, 360-407-6603

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