Emergency Action Planning



dam owner responsibilities

Dam Owner Responsibilities

What the Dam Safety Program Does

The Georgia Safe Dams Act was enacted in 1978 after the failure of the Kelly-Barnes Dam in Toccoa, Georgia. The dam failure killed 39 people at Toccoa Falls College in the fall of 1977. The Safe Dams Program is the regulatory arm of Georgia DNR Environmental Protection Division (EPD) and enforces the Georgia Rules for Dam Safety which were developed to implement the provisions of the Georgia Safe Dams Act. Its role is to inspect and permit certain dams for the purpose of reducing the risk of failure for the protection of health, safety and welfare of all the citizens of the state. This role includes review of construction and rehabilitation plans and maintaining an inventory of all dams in the state with inventory updates every five years.

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The Safe Dams Program regulates dams which, based on definition, are not otherwise regulated by the federal government. Under this protocol dams in Georgia that are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) are exempt from the Georgia Rules for Dam Safety.

The engineers of the Safe Dams Program encourage dam owners to develop EAPs in partnership with the Safe Dams Program and their local emergency management directors. The Program does not have statutory or regulatory authority to require dam owners to develop EAPs, so they are limited to writing letters, urging dam owners to comply during inspections, providing workshops on how to develop an EAP, and educating the public about the importance of EAPs.

In Georgia, only 5% of high-hazard dams have EAPs. The national average of EAPs for HHP dams is 69%, revealing a stark lack of dam owner planning to protect citizens in an emergency. In comparison to the number of dams regulated per staff the Georgia Safe Dams Program staff has a work load five times greater than the national average.

As of 2013, the Georgia policy to address dam deficiencies is with a letter requiring the dam owner to hire an engineer within four to eight weeks, and subsequently submit an engineering report within three to four months. Serious deficiencies may result in the owner being required to comply with safety standards within reduced timeframes. Failure to comply could lead to enforcement action against the dam owner. The lack of Safe Dams staff makes it difficult to find time to write enforcement orders against these owners. There are several cases that will ultimately go to the State Attorney General's office for enforcement assistance, which also takes extensive staff time.

The engineers of the Safe Dams Program also investigate causes and issues related to any dam failure, whether the dam is regulated or not. Since 2009, four dam failures have been reported in the state. Each of these structures were either Category II (low-hazard potential) or exempt dams. In September 2009, the Atlanta metro area experienced extreme flooding, and as a result, 96 Category I dams were impacted. Four of these dams overtopped but did not fail, and 46 had their emergency spillway engaged. The emergency spillway of a dam engages only in extreme rain events and provides a path for excess water to cross the dam safely without overtopping the dam which could cause the dam to fail.

HHP dams are the primary inspection mandate for the Safe Dams Program engineers. The number of HHP dams in Georgia has increased from 450 in 2008 to 484 in 2013, an increase of 7.5 percent. The greater number is due to the construction of new dams and re-classification of existing dams due to new development downstream of existing dams. Of the HHP dams identified, over 50 percent do not have a permit to operate. The lack of an operations permit indicates that they have not been assessed for compliance with the Georgia Rules for Dam Safety or there are known deficiencies which need to be corrected to be eligible for a permit.

In Georgia, there are 357 watershed dams which were constructed by the Soil Conservation Service (now the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service) since the 1940's. Over 100 of these dams are HHP dams and are maintained and operated by the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. SWCDs have no revenue source for maintenance or rehabilitation. Safe Dams Program engineers work with SWCDs when called upon to evaluate problems with the dams.

Any dam must be inspected and maintained to prolong the structure's life and prevent catastrophic failure. Until recently, Safe Dams Program staff have inspected all HHP dams on an annual basis. Now, due to staffing shortages, the inspection schedule has changed to a bi-annual basis. As part of shifting to bi-annual inspections, dam owners were notified of their lawful responsibility to inspect their own dams quarterly. The Safe Dams Program reports that the participation rate for self-inspections has been very low, around 20 percent.

Low-hazard (Category II) dams are required to be re-inventoried at least once every five years. There are counties in the state that have not been re-inventoried within the 5-year window stated in the law. As of 2013, the number of lagging counties was 54 and increasing. Category II and unregulated dams account for almost 90 percent of the dams in Georgia. In 2013, both an exempt dam and Category II dam failed in Georgia. Failure of these dams did not result in loss of human life, but necessitated evacuating nearly 100 people from downstream of the exempt dam and caused millions of dollars of environmental damages downstream of the Category II dam.

Despite the 9.5 percent increase in state regulated dams, the Georgia dam safety budget decreased 17.5 percent during the same time period. In Georgia, the dam safety budget is used to fund the Georgia Safe Dams Program staff. In 2013 Georgia employed 4 full time staff within the Safe Dams Program. Due to staff shortage, the Safe Dams Program had a backlog of 34 design reviews to be performed, 113 compliance reports to be written, 278 dams to be permitted and nearly 500 dams to be assessed to determine if they need to be upgraded to Category I status.

In 2013 the state of Georgia was recovering from a historic drought period. New raw water reservoir projects were being constructed and proposed to increase water supply capacity. The Georgia Safe Dams Program reviews and approves the design of all Category I dams and has the option to review any design for a water supply reservoir project. The anticipated timeframe to have a dam design reviewed and approved was more than six months. On June 9, 2013, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper reported, "The agency has a backlog of 115 dams recently upgraded to high hazard that have yet to be fully assessed so their owners know how to address them. There are also just under 500 low-hazard dams waiting for further study because they were flagged for potential upgrade to high-hazard status."