Civil engineers are responsible for developing complex construction projects for residential, commercial and industrial applications, all of which have a major impact on the quality of life of our society. They play a pivotal role in designing, testing and improving the essential infrastructure without which our society simply couldn’t function. One of the key elements of this infrastructure are dams, which contribute to our economic development and social welfare.

According to the report issued by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials issued in May 2020, which summarizes updates to dam safety laws and regulations in states that have them, while these regulations can differ somewhat from state to state, major laws remain the same. Ensuring compliance with these standards is key to ensuring flawless operation and preventing significant losses – up to and including loss of life – down the road.

Among the diverse civil and land development projects offered by Vertex, a rapidly growing nationwide AEC firm is dam design and compliance. In this article, we will take a look at the dam design and compliance process, and explain the crucial role civil engineers play in it.

How Does Hazard Classification Work?

Dam safety services are provided on all classes of dam, classified as High Hazard (Class C), Considerable Hazard (Class B), or Low Hazard (Class A). These hazard classifications are based on the potential for adverse incremental consequences.

Hazard class measures the destructive potential of a dam in case of failure or misoperation, with key parameters being loss of human life, and economic, lifeline and/or environmental losses. However, hazard classification has nothing to do with the current conditions and structural integrity of a dam, nor with its operational status and flood storage capability. For example, a large capacity dam in poor condition may be classified as Class A (low hazard) if the area that would be affected has low population density.

What is the takeaway? Precise and accurate dam hazard classification is essential for the local agency to assess the potential damage in the event of failure. Periodic inspections, compliance verification and maintenance activities are necessary to reduce the risk of such failure.

What is the Role of Civil Engineers when a Dam is Not in Compliance?

Civil engineers are called when a dam owner has been notified by the responsible dam regulatory agency that they are not in compliance with the up-to-date safety regulations.

The first steps the engineers take include:

  • Collecting relevant information
  • Performing a site investigation

These steps are taken to determine the existing conditions at the dam site and then make decisions on the course of action going forward.

If necessary, a dam safety permit will be issued so further action can be taken to perform a comprehensive safety inspection and bring the dam closer to compliance with these requirements.

In a typical scenario, compliance with state and federal safety regulations requires periodic engineering inspections of current dam conditions. Aside from these routine dam inspections, civil engineering teams may also need to prepare the following:

  • Emergency Action Plans
  • Inspection and Maintenance Plans
  • Engineering Assessment Reports

What Is an Engineering Assessment Report?

This report may be required by some regulatory agencies. The documents to be included in the report may include:

  • Hazard Classification Evaluation
  • Hydrological and Hydraulic Assessment
  • Safety Inspection Reports
  • Structural Stability Analyses
  • Emergency Action Plan updates

Bringing a structure into compliance with current safety standards may require developing and executing a dam improvement plan. An environmental permitting process may run parallel to such dam safety improvement projects.

Civil engineering experts with experience in navigating dam safety and associated civil engineering design projects can not only ensure dam safety and compliance, but also identify and take actions to limit potential adverse impacts in terms of safety and environmental protection.


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