Emergency Action Planning



Dam Owner Responsibilities

Dam Owner Responsibilities

Know Your North Carolina Dam Safety Laws

One of the missions of the Land Quality Section of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is to prevent property damage, personal injury and loss of life from the failure of dams. This entails ensuring that dams in the state are constructed, maintained and operated in a safe manner. This is accomplished by regulation of dams that are:

  • 25 feet in height or greater as measured from the highest point on the crest of the dam to the lowest point at the downstream toe, AND
  • Impoundment capacity of 50 acre-feet or greater as measured at the highest point on the crest of the dam, UNLESS,
  • EXCEPTION: Failure of the dam could result in loss of human life or significant damage to property below the dam (i.e. High Hazard), then the dam is jurisdictional regardless of height or impoundment capacity.

The Dam Safety Program does not have jurisdiction over:

  • Dams designed by a federal agency and constructed with federal supervision. This exemption does not apply if the federal agency relinquishes control of the dam.
  • Dams licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency (FERC) or for which an FERC license is pending.
  • Dams for use in connection with electric generating facilities under the jurisdiction of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
  • A dam under single private ownership when the owner of the dam owns all property downstream that would be affected.
  • A low- or intermediate-hazard potential dam that is less than 25 feet in height, or impounds less than 50 acre-feet .
Dam Hazards Classification
Hazard Classification Description Quantitative Guidelines
Low Interruption of road service, low volume roads Less than 25 vehicles per day
Economic damage Less than $30,000
Intermediate Damage to highways, Interruption of service 25 to less than 250 vehicles per day
Economic damage $30,000 to less than $200,000
High Loss of human life* Probable loss of 1 or more human lives
Economic damage More than $200,000
*Probable loss of human life due to breached roadway or bridge on or below the dam.
250 or more vehicles per day


Waste treatment and mine tailings dams may be classified low, intermediate or high hazard on the basis of potential environmental damage. Hazard classification of these dams is generally determined by equating the results of failure to monetary cost of cleanup.

Laws pertaining to North Carolina dam safety are found in G.S. 143-215-23, last amended in 2009. Regulations regarding dam safety are found in North Carolina Administrative Code Title 15A -2K, last amended in 1995. The Dam Safety Program website includes a summary of the law, but does not reflect the 2009 change bringing coal ash dams under state regulation. The Dam Safety Program website also includes a summary of the Administrative Code.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) has posted a Summary of North Carolina Dam Safety Laws and Regulations as of 2007. This does not include the 2009 changes bringing coal ash dams under state regulation.

History of the North Carolina Law

North Carolina’s Dam Safety Law was passed in 1967. It was not funded at a significant level until the mid 1970’s. Incidences such as the failure of Bear Wallow dam in 1976 that took the lives of four family members raised awareness and resulted in increased funding.

In 1989, the failure of a dam that did not meet the height and impoundment capacity for jurisdiction under the state’s Dam Safety Program resulted in loss of life and significant property damage. At this time the dam safety program was charged with regulating all High-Hazard Potential dams.

There was a gradual but steady increase in the size and effectiveness of the state’s Dam Safety Program until 2001 when state budget shortfalls prevented further expansion.