Dam Owner Education

Welcome to the (Demo) ASDSO Dam Owner Education Site.  

Below are a series of basic topics that dam owners should be aware of with overview videos and links to more resources.  The videos try to cover just the basics for dam owners with smaller structures.  This page is also useful to provide the basic overview information for non-profit and homeowners associations boards of directors and others that have some involvement in the ownership of a dam.  

Topic 1: What does it mean to be a dam owner?

Owning a dam brings responsibilities and liabilities.  Dam require ongoing inspection, maintenance, and repair.  Dams can and do fail and with that comes risk to life and property downstream, liability for that loss of life and/or property damage falls upon the dam owner.   

Links and references:


Topic 2: Parts of a dam and how dams work.

Dams are designed to hold back water and safely release it.  Dams come in a wide variety of shapes and materials.  The most common types of dams are earth embankment dams and concrete dams.  Earth embankment dams can also have significant concrete structures to pass flow.  All dams can have seepage and dams are designed to cutoff this seepage as best they can and safely release all seepage that does occur.  Spillways must be adequate sized to be able to pass the design flows.  The storms that the dam is designed to pass typically depend on the dam hazard classification.  Each state has their own rules regarding the design features and design storms required for dams in their state.  

Links and References:


Introduction to Embankment Dams


Topic 3: How dams fail

Many dam failures have occurred in the United State with significant loss of life.  While engineers have learned from these failures, the continue to occur do to various reasons including design mistakes, flood exceeding dam capacity,  construction issues, and/or poor maintenance.  The two most common ways that dams fail are by overtopping, or internal erosion where seepage begins to erode a tunnel through the dam and embankment slides.  

Links and references:



Topic 4: Dam Regulation and Hazard Classification

Non-federally owned dams are primarily regulated by state dam safety programs.  When the dam is involved in the production of energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may also regulate the dam and operations.  It is important that you understand if your dam is regulated and what work on the dam may require approval from the regulatory agencies.  Links are provided below to help you contact your local dam safety official.

Hazard potential classification—A system that categorizes dams according to the degree of adverse
incremental consequences from their failure or misoperation that does not reflect in any way on their current condition (their safety, structural integrity, or flood routing capacity), and that includes the following categories:
• High hazard potential—loss of one or more human life is probable
• Significant hazard potential—no probable loss of human life but possible economic loss, environmental damage, disruption of lifeline facilities, or other impacts
• Low hazard potential—no probable loss of human life and low economic and/or environmental losses (typically limited to the property of the dam owner).

Your dams hazard classification typically determines the design, spillway capacity, inspection and permitting requirements.  Hazard classifications can change as downstream conditions change.

Various Federal and State agencies may have different definitions for the dams over which they have jurisdiction. Please refer to your agency or State dam regulatory requirements for direction.


Links and References:

Listing of contact and information for state dam safety programs


Topic 5: Dam O&M and Inspections





Links and References:


Topic 6: Emergency Action Plans



Links and References:


Topic 7: Dam Owner Liability


The owner is responsible for the operation and maintenance of a safe dam. Maintaining a safe dam is a
key element in preventing failure and limiting the liability that an owner could face. The extent of an owner’s liability varies from State to State and depends on statutes and case law precedents. Federally owned and regulated dams are subject to the laws, regulations and guidelines of the
owner agency.

Owners can be fiscally and criminally liable for any failure of a dam and all damages resulting from its failure. Any uncontrolled release of the reservoir resulting from a dam failure or uncontrolled release can have a devastating effect on persons, property, and the environment.

This guide is designed for a wide audience. The recommended action taken by individuals will be determined by their expertise with dam maintenance. Inexperienced individuals should photograph suspected problem(s) and report them promptly to the dam owner or operator. When you become aware of any unusual conditions that seem critical or dangerous to a dam, report them immediately
to the appropriate Federal or State agency official.




Links and References:

Dam Owner Responsibilities Fact Sheet

Legal Liability for Dam Failures (Professor Denis Binder)