Dam Safety: Protecting Communities and Ecosystems from Dam Failure


The safety of dams is often taken for granted until a high profile event reveals the associated risks. In the United States, the failures of Buffalo Creek Dam in 1970 and Teton Dam in 1976 resulted in dozens of deaths, hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and the loss of aquatic wildlife and habitat. Public reaction to these failures resulted in new legislation addressing dam safety, and since that time there have been just a few dam failures in this country, with damage primarily in the form of property destruction and environmental degradation. The lack of a high profile event has created a sense of security with our nation’s dams, but the risks associated with unsafe dams have not been eliminated. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) emphasized this concern by giving dams a grade of D in their “1998 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” – citing age, downstream development, dam abandonment, and lack of funding
for dam safety programs.

Dams are not designed to last forever; their deterioration is inevitable. It is imperative that we take a proactive approach to dam safety now, before the next major dam failure occurs. This means we must have a complete inventory of dams and their safety conditions, and, where significant safety risks occur we must ensure that the resources are available to either remove or repair that dam.