ASDSO Dam Safety Toolbox

State Dam Safety Regulatory Programs

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Regulatory dam safety programs have been established in 49 of 50 U.S. states and in Puerto Rico and Guam. These programs were created to meet the need to regulate the many dams that are not owned and operated by federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and others. Individual states recognized that many dams were not well maintained and that regulation was necessary for public benefit. The National Inventory of Dams (NID) identifies over 91,000 dams in the United States. Over 70% of those dams are regulated by state dam safety regulatory programs, so the bulk of dam regulation falls to the individual states.

AlabamaAlaskaArizonaArkansasCaliforniaColoradoConnecticutDelawareFloridaGeorgiaHawaiiIdahoIllinoisIndianaIowaKansasKentuckyLouisianaMaineMarylandMassachusettsMichiganMinnesotaMississippiMissouriMontanaNebraskaNevadaNew HampshireNew JerseyNew MexicoNew YorkNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOhioOklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth CarolinaSouth DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermontVirginiaWashingtonWest VirginiaWisconsinWyomingConnecticutDelawareMarylandMassachusettsNew HampshireNew JerseyRhode IslandVermontWest Virginia
Clickable Map of the USA: Click on a state to learn more about their dam safety regulatory program.

Most state dam safety regulatory programs do not own dams and they regulate the activities of others. However, a limited number of state programs regulate dams that are owned and operated by other entities within their state agencies such as state parks.

Each state had a different motivation for the creation of their program for dam safety regulation. Many state dam safety programs were established in response to a major dam failure in that individual state. This was the case in Pennsylvania after the South Fork Dam and Austin Dam failures in 1889 and 1913, respectively, and after the St. Francis Dam Failure in 1928 in California. Other dam safety programs were created as the need to reduce the risk of dam failures and incidents were made known to officials through the efforts of public and private individuals. These state officials then took steps to regulate important water infrastructure including dams.

Federal dam safety efforts were implemented and strengthened in the 1970s and 1980s through actions by the executive and legislative branches. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials was formed in 1984 to coordinate the efforts of state dam safety programs across the nation. The National Dam Safety Program was established in 1996 within the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More information on federal dam safety efforts can be found in other toolbox sections.

Dams Regulated by State Regulatory Programs

State dams safety regulatory programs oversee dams that are owned by private individuals, homeowner associations, soil and water conservation districts, business interests, utility companies, municipalities, and state and county governments. The dams regulated at the state level are used for many purposes such as water supply, irrigation, flood control, recreation, mining, environmental processes, and other purposes.

Authority of State Dam Safety Programs

State dam safety regulatory programs were created by state governments that gave them authority through the laws and codes promulgated by that state. Some states have wide-reaching regulatory authority while others have less regulator latitude. Enforcement capability at the state level also varies. Some state dam safety programs can take prompt action to enforce state regulations while others must work through a process that involves other entities. This variability is a function of the law and codes written in each state. In 2020, the ASDSO created a summary of the laws and regulations governing dam safety for each state. That summary is available on ASDSO's website:

Summary of State Laws and Regulations on Dam Safety, ASDSO

State Regulatory Dam Safety Programs in General

Dams in the U.S. (source: National Inventory of Dams, US Army Corps of Engineers)

Each state dam safety program has its own structure under the umbrella of state government. Most state program operate within a state agency that has responsibility to manage water or other natural resources. Some state programs perform their function under a State Engineer or state emergency manager but most are within state departments of natural resources or environmental departments.

Dam safety programs at the state level are typically staffed by professional engineers, technicians, environmental professionals, administrative professionals, and others. The number of persons employed in dam regulation varies within the states. The number of full-time state personnel dedicated to dam safety regulation varies from 2 persons in the state to over 80 persons in the program. Some state programs augment their technical capabilities with assistance from private engineers under contract when they have the resources and need this assistance.

Functions of State Dam Safety Regulatory Programs

State regulatory programs administer a program to ensure that dams are operated as safety as possible and in accordance with the laws of the state. That work is performed by reviewing the work done by dam owners to operate, maintain, and repair dams and by taking active steps to make sure that each dam is inspected when resources allow. State activities vary depending on the mandate given by an individual state government, but in general state regulatory programs perform functions in these general categories:

  • Permitting - in most states a dam owner must obtain a permit to construct a new dam and to modify or rehabilitate an existing dam. This is done to ensure that new dams and modifications to existing dams meet minimum requirements set by industry standards. State programs review the engineered plans that are submitted and provide comments and/or issue a permit or approval before starting construction.
  • Inspection - dams must be inspected to ensure that they are being maintained and operated properly and that any potential safety issues are corrected promptly in a safe manner. In some states, the dam owner and their engineer are required to perform dam safety inspections at their facility and to provide a report to the state program. Other state regulatory programs perform the dam inspections and document findings and requirements for the dam owner to perform. Most state regulatory programs perform some level of inspection during construction of new dams and modifications, or they ensure that the owner has adequate technical oversight.
  • Safe Storage Level - if unsafe conditions are observed at a dam, most states have the ability to limit the amount of water that can be stored by the structure by establishing a storage restriction. Reducing the load on the structure is the quickest way to reduce the risk of dam failure. Careful documentation of the evidence and/or analysis leading to the conclusion of the unsafe condition should be provided to the dam owner so they can establish a program to address the issue.
  • Emergency Action Planning - each dam that has the potential to cause loss of life or to damage infrastructure and property in a failure or incident should have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Emergency Action Plans outline steps for dam operators and others to take to identify and prevent incidents, to react to incidents, and to reduce impacts to downstream populations. State dam regulatory programs often require these plans by law or code and the state program usually has the responsibility to approve these plans. Some state take an active role in preparation of EAPs and in exercising the plans with community officials. State dam regulatory programs typically have a responsibility to take certain specified actions during dam incidents. These responsibilities are typically outlined in EAPs and in policy documents prepared at the state level.
  • Enforcement - the state dam regulatory program is empowered to take legal action against dam owners who do not voluntarily comply with state law, rules, and regulations, or applicable code. As mentioned previously, this degree of enforcement power varies across the states, but typically includes the use of notices of violations or orders. Along with the help of the state's Attorney General's office, state dam safety programs can also file suit against dam owners to compel action to improve the safety of their dam.

Technical Projects to Support Dam Safety Activities

In addition to basic regulatory activities, many state dam regulatory programs are active in supporting dam owners, engineers, and community members by providing state-specific and general guidance to improve dam safety and to improve risk reduction.

Some state regulatory programs are in a position to provide training and technical and financial assistance to dam owners. Not every state has the resources to provide these added supports, but they have great value to risk reduction and community preparedness. Some of these added supports include:

  • Training - some state regulatory programs have developed specific training for dam owners. This training supplements materials that are available from ASDSO and other resources. Many states are active in supporting communities to exercise their EAPs.
  • Technical Documentation and Guidance - some states have been able to create engineering guidance for dam safety engineering and analysis. Many of these guidance documents have value for engineers and regulators in other states and the information can often be applied in similar situations. Guidance documentation is generally developed to increase technical knowledge in the dam safety community in a state and to streamline the process of permitting repairs and performing construction.
  • Dam Rehabilitation - involvement of state regulatory programs in dam rehabilitation varies widely across the states. Some states permit and oversee projects for dam repair and rehabilitation through their statutory regulatory function while some states have more resources and have the ability to provide financial assistance for dam repair and rehabilitation. In this latter case, a state program will often work with another state agency to administer grant or loan funds. Active support for rehabilitation requires staffing that many states do not have.

Users are encouraged to visit the individual state toolbox pages for guidance and resources for dam safety practices that have been developed at the state level. Select state guidance materials are highlighted in the Other Resources Catalog on the Dam Safety Toolbox Main Page.

Toolbox users are reminded to contact the state dam safety program that regulates a particular dam in question. State Dam Safety programs are receptive to communication on technical and regulatory topics and generally appreciate dialogue prior to undertaking a project.

Revision ID: 7860
Revision Date: 04/01/2024