Keeping Our Dams Safe

Let’s go back 135 years, May 31, 1889. Fourteen miles upstream from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the South Fork dam fails, sending 20 million tons of water crashing through Johnstown.

“Twenty-two hundred people perished.”

That’s James Demby. He’s the National Dam Safety Coordinator for the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, NRCS for short. He says the investigation of the Johnstown disaster showed deficiencies in construction and in maintenance of the dam, those were the main causes of that catastrophic dam failure. That’s why each year at this time, officials commemorate the Johnstown tragedy with a special Dam Safety Awareness Day designed to educate folks about dams and about the need to constantly monitor them for safety issues, becauseā€¦

“Dams are kind that infrastructure that people don’t think about until there’s an issue.”

And so talking about dams is something that James Demby really, really loves to do.

“Anytime I get to talk about dams is a good day for me.”

Okay, so first off, there are some misconceptions about dams. How many there are, for example. Now, most of us would guess maybe 1000 maybe 2000 wrong. Not even close.

“National inventory dams has about 90,000 dams identified in that inventory.”

So you think most of these dams would be owned and operated by the federal government. Wrong again.

“Only 5% of those are owned by federal agencies. The majority of dams are privately owned.”

But surely the government is responsible for inspection and maintenance of those privately owned dams, right James? Wrong again.

“Primarily the owner is responsible to make sure that their dam doesn’t fail.”

James says dams need regular inspection and maintenance, and…

“As your dam ages, it’s going to get weak, there’s going to be some deterioration. That’s why it’s important to have ongoing, regular maintenance inspections of your dam to track it so you can find out, you know, if you’re starting to see deficiencies, you correct those deficiencies before they become major issues.”

Expensive issues at best, deadly issues at worst. Gary Crawford reporting for the US Department of Agriculture.