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Kentucky dams graded D+

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PDF Report Card on Dams


The American Society of Civil Engineers recently published its 2011 Kentucky Infrastructure Report Card. Dams received a D+ grade, which was down from the C- grade in the ASCE's 2003 Report Card. The reason for the downgrade was that since then no little or no progress was made on additional funding required to address dam repair needs in a timely manner and the need for training programs for dam owners, the regulatory officials and the general public. Progress on several of these topics has been made since then, but the next Report Card is still a couple of years away, so it is too soon to see if the grade will be raised. Meanwhile, the following are excerpts from the 2011 Report Card.

Through inspection programs, dam safety in Kentucky has improved, although inspection programs by themselves do not guarantee that a dam will not fail. The inspection program needs to evolve into more detailed and frequent inspections as the dams increase in age. Typical causes of dam failure are internal erosion or seepage, slope stability failure and overtopping from a flood event. Another critical component involves communicating risks of dam failures to the public. A particularly useful and necessary tool is the development and active implementation of emergency action plans for dams. It is especially critical for high hazard dams, although it is suggested for all dams.

Despite growing hazards, deteriorating dam conditions and an increasing number of dams, funding for the dam program has declined over the past 30 years. A significant investment is needed to improve dams and the dam safety program in Kentucky. Funds are needed to hire and train an adequate staff of professional inspectors, rehabilitate critical dams, improve the communication and notification systems, and update inspection methods and equipment. The 1996 Dam Safety Act has been a helpful source for additional grant funds. These funds assist the Kentucky Department of Water (DOW) in financing equipment purchases and other needs. Even with the additional grants, though, funding levels are not adequate to fulfill all capital needs in the state.

More than $160 million in funds has been identified for repairs on state-owned dams, excluding the Kentucky River and Green River locks and dams, which are owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Each dam on the Kentucky and Green rivers is at least 90 years old and has not been consistently upgraded. The average cost to repair each lock and dam on the Kentucky River is $30 million. If these locks and dams are put under Kentucky's ownership in the future, the funds needed for repair would increase significantly. Of the dams that have been identified in need of repairs, 88 are considered deficient.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) recommends ten state regulators for every 250 dams, so that the oversight of the permitting and inspection components of state dam safety programs can be carried out in an effective manner. To comply with this recommendation, Kentucky would need to have approximately 40 individuals to regulate the dams. Currently, Kentucky employs six full-time professionals dedicated to dam activities. Kentucky employs three dam safety inspectors, which is below recommended levels. The cost to hire and train two additional inspectors would be approximately $300,000 per year.

DOW does not offer a formal educational program to teach private dam owners about their responsibilities, proper inspection and maintenance techniques, or repair methods. An educational program would cost approximately $100,000 per year. However, literature is currently available to dam owners, along with a website of comprehensive resource information. Until an official education program can be initialized and funded, DOW will develop and provide a formal seminar that will be made available to the public.

Private dam owners often have difficulty funding dam repairs, resulting in dams being breached and drained. Some form of assistance from the government would be helpful in maintaining the resources within the state, rather than destroying the dam. Government assistance could come in the form of low-interest loans, with an estimated cost of $1 million. Additional efforts will be needed in the near future to assist in analyzing and upgrading the state's dams, many of which were constructed more than 40 years ago. Dams typically have a design life of about 50 years.

ASCE Recommendations

Overall, Kentucky has good dam safety programs, but due to recent funding reductions, the increasing age of the dams, and the recognition of additional safety measures, several recommendations have been made by ASCE:

  • Increase staff to accommodate current and future inspection needs.
  • Increase government appropriation and other funding sources for the repair and rehabilitation of dams.
  • Develop a long-range capital program that accommodates the needs of state and municipally owned dams.
  • Develop a long-term strategy to control downstream development through easements, purchases or partnerships.
  • Create a more comprehensive inspection program that includes more than just visual inspect conduits through dams.
  • Develop a formal education program to train private property owners in proper dam maintenance and how to recognize signs of structural problems in dams.
  • Develop an emergency action plan (EAP) for all high hazard potential dams.

The Report Card was developed by the following ASCE Kentucky subcommittee on dams members, with support from DOW and ASDSO.

  • Jonathan Keeling, PE, CFM, M.ASCE, Committee Chair, Kentucky Section ASCE President, Stantec Consulting Services, Inc.
  • Gary Rivoli, University of Louisville
  • Frances E. Blandford, EIT, University of Louisville

Read the Report Card on dams here.