Dam Experts Issue Call To Strengthen Research On Safety And Rehabilitation Of U.S. Dams

Published: Jan. 8, 2008

In the aftermath of America's poor infrastructure report card on dams, as well as the levee failures in New Orleans and the August bridge collapse in Minnesota, a group of dam experts is calling for more research funding to develop better investigative and inspection techniques to identify unsafe dams.

The experts want to see more economical and effective rehabilitation of the nation's most deficient dams for the protection of the public and other infrastructure.

The group of 25 engineers has wide representation from government, the private sector and higher education, and most are members of the United States Society on Dams, or USSD, and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, or ASDSO. They endorsed the need to fund basic research to support national dam safety initiatives for the protection of life and property at a University of Colorado at Boulder workshop last fall.

"Given the limited resources available to address maintenance of our aging infrastructure, we must develop a rational plan for rehabilitation based on thorough scientific research," said workshop co-organizer Victor Saouma, a professor of civil engineering who directs the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation site at CU-Boulder. "Millions of dollars in rehabilitation and many lives can potentially be saved by properly studying and rehabilitating dams that are unsafe due to aging or at risk of failure from earthquakes or flooding."

The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure gave dams in the United States a grade of D, as compared to a grade of C given to the nation's bridges. Technological advances through research are required for the development of investigative tools and new analytical methodologies to identify and correct deficient dams in the interest of public safety, according to the experts.

Of the 78,000 dams in the United States, 10,000 have a high-hazard potential, meaning that their failure could result in loss of life or severe property damage, according to the Dam Safety and Security Act of 2003. Many of the dams at risk are located along active fault lines in California. Additionally, the ASDSO has estimated it would cost more than $10 billion to upgrade the condition of all critical nonfederal dams -- dams that pose a direct risk to human life should they fail.

Robin Charlwood, chairman of the Concrete Dams Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams and a USSD board member, stressed that investing in research now will save both time and money in addressing long-term needs. "There is a need to have more research and development to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the investment we must make in maintaining the availability and safety of our dams," Charlwood said.

Dan Johnson, vice president of the USSD and a senior water resources engineer with GEI Consultants in Boulder, said the lack of research funding to study dam safety has led to a decrease in U.S. competitiveness.

"The federal government should allocate more resources in an area where U.S. technology was once a world leader. We are now at risk of falling behind countries such as France, Spain and Brazil in dam technology. Other fast-developing countries such as China and Iran have made great progress in the last decade. They are becoming leaders themselves and are starting to compete in the world technology markets," Johnson said.

As part of its declaration, the Boulder workshop identified earthquakes, aging infrastructure and floods as the primary risks for dam failure and therefore the major research priorities. CU-Boulder will work with other universities to develop a research plan to be conducted in coordination with the USSD and other industry organizations, which will advise the academic community on its research direction and disseminate the research for cost-effective implementation of dam infrastructure upgrades.

David Gutierrez, chief of the Division of Safety of Dams, California Department of Water Resources, expressed continued concern with the complex behavior of dams during earthquakes and the limited research being conducted compared with the nation's investment in these dams and the cost of rehabilitating them.

For more information go to www.dam-research.org.