National Dam Safety Practices Reviewed in Tri-agency Report

The results of a yearlong study by an independent external peer review panel to assess the use of risk-informed dam safety practices is now available to the public. The verdict – the way the nation operates its dams across three federal agencies is appropriate and sound but can benefit from some areas of improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), alongside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Bureau of Reclamation, contracted with a panel of dam experts, all external to their agencies, to review their dam safety practices at the direction of U.S. congress. The review took place following the 2017 spillway failure at California’s Oroville Dam, which triggered broad industry concerns about the safety of dams nationwide.

“Many agencies including USACE took a much closer look at how we have been evaluating safety at our dams. Congress was also interested in what the Oroville incident meant for the nation and for federal dams specifically. They asked USACE to coordinate an independent review of the risk policies and methods used to assess risk across the three major federal agencies that own, operate, or regulate dams in the U.S. It was congress’ intent to inform improvements broadly in national dam safety practices,” said Risk Management Center’s Director, Nate Snorteland, whose work falls under USACE’s Institute for Water Resources.

The panel, which includes a broad range of experience and expertise, encompassed individuals from the United States, the Netherlands, and Australia, and included academicians and a private sector consultant. In addition to evaluating agencies’ use of risk in dam safety and regulation, the panel also considered how dam safety practices are affected by human factors, as well as how risk informed analysis in other industries may be applicable to dam safety practices.

According to Snorteland, the review consisted of several meetings between the agencies and the panel, where documents provided by the agencies were reviewed and each agency briefed the panel on their policies and methods. “The panel spent more than a year examining the documents and discussing them with the three agencies. Ultimately, they provided a draft report, received feedback from the agencies, and provided an out brief to the agency leadership. The report was finalized in September 2020 and submitted to the Administration,” Snorteland said. The report has now completed clearance and is ready for release.

The review showed that overall, the risk management programs for dam safety in the three agencies are appropriate and sound. Additionally, the agencies’ implementation of risk-informed decision-making are consistent with federal guidance despite differing levels of dam safety program development between agencies. The panel felt the level of cooperation between agencies and progress made by the agencies over the last 10 years was important and improved safety overall.

The report also highlighted issues that warrant attention by the agencies. Specifically, the panel recommended agencies incorporate practices used in other industries more fully, such as incorporating human factors into the risk methods. The team also recommended agencies fully calibrate models used in risk analyses and employ expert judgments to support safety assessments. Other recommendations of note included improving communication with the public on their risk exposure. USACE concurred with each of the recommendations and has developed a plan to implement improvements over the next several years.

According to Carlos Denson, the Risk Management Center’s Director of Operations, the federal dam infrastructure provides a substantial benefit to the nation. “These structures protect the public from floods, provide reliable drinking water, generate clean reliable power, and provide water to irrigate crops across the country. The safety of these structures is important so that they can continue to deliver those benefits to society. The findings from the panel reinforce the stewardship that is currently being provided by the agencies and the commitment to continually improve safety across the nation,” said Denson.

USACE Headquarters Dam and Levee Branch Chief, Travis Tutka, provided his perspective on the report.

“When it comes to the management of our dams, public safety is our top priority. USACE conducts self-assessments of our programs and contracts external reviews periodically. This independent review was requested by congress to assess the use of risk-informed dam safety practices in each of the three federal agencies.” Overall, the review validated our efforts with some room for improvement. By maintaining openness and transparency of our programs with the public through reviews such as this, we hope to increase trust in our management of USACE dams on behalf of the nation.”

For the full digital report, visit:

About the Risk Management Center:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) – Institute for Water Resources, Risk Management Center (RMC) is a center of expertise. It was established in 2009 to improve management controls over infrastructure decisions, serve as an independent advisor to senior leadership, maintain and develop risk competencies, and ensure consistency in processes, application of criteria and decision-making. The mission of the RMC is to support Civil Works by managing and assessing risks for dams and levee systems across USACE, support dam and levee safety activities throughout USACE, and develop policies, methods, tools, and systems to enhance those activities. The RMC serves as a USACE-wide resource for risk-related tools, assessments, knowledge, and methods. It is intended to offer a national perspective as well as support routine District and Major Subordinate Command (MSC) dam and levee safety activities. The RMC offers services to support dam safety; levee safety; and the Modeling, Mapping, and Consequence (MMC) Production Center.