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Dam Safety at Risk with State Budget Restraints

By Matt Faris, PE, Senior Project Manager, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

America’s aging infrastructure has been a subject of great concern for many years. It is one of the few issues universally agreed to politically at the local, state and federal level. As with many political wishes, budgetary restraints limit what has been available for infrastructure maintenance and rehabilitation. Most people think of roads, bridges, public sewer and water systems as the critical infrastructure that needs attention. One important type of structure appears to be overlooked when it comes to providing financial support for regulating and monitoring existing facilities: dams.

In Virginia, there were over 2,900 regulated dams in 2017. Of those, more than 380 dams were defined as “high hazard” structures. This classification means that the failure or misoperation of such a dam would probably cause the loss of human life and significant property damage. Factors that determine the dam classification include the size of the dam, the amount of water impounded by the dam, and the improvements that lie below the dam. These improvements may be houses, highways or other significant improvements. (Photo on right: Example Flood Inundation Map - Source: USGS)

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is mandated with monitoring the inspection and maintenance of dams; monitoring the remediation of deficient dams; and facilitating the emergency preparedness of dam owners. DCR’s Division of Dam Safety and Floodplain Management carries out this mandate in the Commonwealth.

Unfortunately, the Division of Dam Safety is bracing for significant reduction in funding. While it is generally accepted that budgets are being reduced across the board, the DCR (which controls the Division’s spending) is dealing with a proposed operating budget reduction of 39% from Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 to FY 2018. The challenge with these reductions is going to be the ability to maintain the same staff level as before.

When looking specifically at the Division of Dam Safety and Floodplain Management, the situation is equally as dire. There are currently five budgeted Regional Dam Safety Engineers. These talented and dedicated employees manage the dams in five regions of the state. Their work includes monitoring inspection schedules, inspecting dams and educating the public and private dam owners around the state. When fully staffed, each engineer has an average of 75 high hazard dams and 600 dams in total to monitor. Currently 2 of the 5 positions are vacant, being handled on a temporary basis by utilizing other qualified employees or expanding the engineer’s region of responsibility. While the state is advertising for additional staff, the fact remains that the current trend of reduced budgets and extremely overworked employees does not bode well for improved monitoring of the state’s dams.

( Dam Safety regions in Virginia)This shortage creates extraordinary delays in the services that the Dam Safety and Flood Plain Management team provides. These services include review and comment of dam permits as well as providing educational opportunities to private and public lake owners throughout Virginia. This will have an impact on construction and/or maintenance of existing and future dams, resulting in delays in identifying critical issues that may affect the safety of the general public. It is imperative that these positions are filled with capable engineers, and that our dams be monitored and improved where necessary, before a catastrophic failure causes loss of life in the Commonwealth.

If you are responsible for a dam, or if you may be impacted by a dam, be it upstream of your property, or impacted by your daily commute, make yourself familiar with the status of these dams. If you would like more information you can contact either your local Department of Emergency Management or your regional Dam Safety Engineer (contact list at: ). Koontz-Bryant is also on hand if you need assistance or need more information - contact Matt Faris, P.E. via email or at 804-200-1935.