ASDSO Dam Safety Toolbox

Permit Application and Approval Process

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The construction of dams requires careful planning and regulatory oversight to ensure public safety, environmental sustainability, and compliance with federal, state and local requirements. The first step in the permit application process for dams is identifying the need for a dam and may include conducting a feasibility study. This study outlines the potential benefits and drawbacks of a dam project and considers the federal, state, and local jurisdictions that require coordination for project authorization. Preliminary analyses of water availability, potential environmental impacts, economic viability, and social considerations are performed. A feasibility study helps to identify potential locations for the dam and evaluate its technical and financial feasibility.

Financial support for a dam may include federal or state funding or a dam may be funded privately. The source of project funding guides the level of studies, evaluations, and documentation needed. When federal funding is involved, justification of the proposed expenditure is required. Justification may include documenting the need for flood protection, drinking water supply, hydropower, industrial water supply, recreation, irrigation, wildlife habitat, fire suppression, or regional economic development. Privately funded projects limit studies and evaluations to obtaining permit authorizations and don’t focus on spending justifications. Regardless of the funding source, all regulations must be met for permits to be authorized for construction.

Once a dam project is confirmed as viable and funding sources are known, the next step is environmental compliance. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the proposed action to construct the dam is considered in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA). The NEPA process evaluates potential environmental, social, and economic impacts of alternatives. Factors such as changes in water flow, habitat disruption, wildlife displacement, and potential risks to downstream communities, and cultural resources are considered. The NEPA process helps engineers minimize the potential adverse effects of the design and consider alternative designs that could reduce environmental impacts. As the dam conceptual project develops into a preferred alternative, additional consultation with federal, state, and local entities is needed to identify anticipated permits.

Next, the dam project proponent submits a permit application to the federal, state, or local regulatory authority depending on the jurisdiction and potential impacts. Typically, dam projects on waterways are regulated under the Clean Water Act Section 404 and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act. The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) issues a Department of the Army Permit under Section 404 and Section 10, as applicable. USACE will acknowledge impacts and require mitigation where needed to satisfy wetland and waterways impacts, compliance under the Endangered Species Act, and satisfaction of cultural resources under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. USACE will conclude NEPA compliance prior to issuing permit approvals. The State entity typically issues a 401 Water Quality Certification to the federal agency in addition to issuing their own permit for dams, natural resource impacts and cultural resource impacts. The application will consist of project plans, engineering designs, environmental assessment reports, financial feasibility studies, and record of stakeholder consultations. The application must adhere to specific regulatory guidelines and include all necessary information to support the case for permit approval.

After receiving the permit application, the regulatory authority initiates a technical review process. They evaluate the dam design, construction methods, and safety measures. Occasionally, independent experts or contractors are involved to perform technical reviews and ensure that the project complies with engineering standards. In many cases, stakeholders and the public are asked to provide feedback, voice concerns, and participate in decision-making. Based on these review processes, the regulatory authority decides on the permit application. If approved, the dam project is required to adhere to specific conditions and comply with environmental, safety, and operational standards. This often includes monitoring and reporting obligations, mitigation measures, compensating affected communities or ecosystems, and continually reviewing compliance assessments. If a group does not comply with permit conditions, it may lead to penalties, project suspension, or even cancellation.

Best Practices Resources

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulations and Guidance Webpage