On Tuesday, May 31, 2022, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) observed “National Dam Safety Awareness Day”. Nationwide, more than 92,000 dams serve a variety of functions and provide numerous services including irrigation, water conservation, flood protection. Ensuring the safety and sustainability of the nation’s dams is a top infrastructure priority for ASCE, and we strongly support efforts to raise greater awareness of dam safety issues.
National Dam Safety Awareness Day is observed this year in remembrance of the 132nd anniversary of the South Fork Dam Failure, which occurred on May 31, 1889 near Johnstown, PA. The dam’s failure resulted in the deaths of more than 2,200 people in what came to be known as the “Johnstown Flood”. Dam failures like the tragedy of the South Fork Dam serve as a reminder of the critical importance of maintaining and effectively managing the nation’s dams. This includes robust investment in federal dam safety programs, support for the continued development of state dam safety programs, and engaging with the downstream communities in order to help spread awareness of potential risks.
ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives the nation’s dams a “D” grade. Of the nation’s 92,000 dams, more than 15,000 are classified as having “high hazard potential”, meaning that dam failure would result in the loss of life. Nationwide, the number of high hazard potential dams more than doubled during the first two decades of the 21st century. While this is indicative of increased state investment in dam safety programs which has allowed for better assessment of dams and ability to identify rehabilitation needs as well as hazard potential, it also makes clear that increased federal investment is needed to ensure the safety of dams nationwide.
Programs like the National Dam Safety Program and the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant program provide states with needed resources to conduct assessments and inspections, support state program staffing needs, and make needed repairs to faltering dams. Both of these programs received support last year through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Dam safety programs saw an investment of nearly $3.1 billion under IIJA, including $215 million for state assistance grants and FEMA Operations and Support funds under the National Dam Safety Program, and $585 million for the High Hazard Potential Rehabilitation Grant Program.
While this was an important down payment, these programs are drastically underfunded each year under annual Congressional appropriations. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the estimated total cost to rehabilitate the nation’s non-federal dams is approximately $75.7 billion. In Fiscal Year 2022, Congress provided the National Dam Safety Program with $9.7 million, and the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program $12 million, both well below the authorized funding levels.
To address the needs and challenges faced by the nation’s dams, Congress must take action to provide robust support for dam safety programs. This includes providing the fully funding the National Dam Safety Program at $13.9 million, and the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program at $60 million in FY 2023. Congress should also take swift action to reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program, which is set to expire at the end of FY 2023.
ASCE is proud to support these efforts and urges continued awareness of issues surrounding down safety. Dams serve as a critical component of our nation’s infrastructure, and ASCE is committed to enhancing dam safety, increasing awareness, and supporting measures to strengthen dam resilience.