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Three reasons you should care about dam safety

As an owner of a private dam, you’re responsible for keeping your dam—and the public—safe

By Wendy Warford, Surface Water Lead (St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador)

Dams can serve many purposes, like power generation, tailings impoundment, flood protection, water supply. They can be big or small, new or old, and they can be located just about anywhere: upstream of a large city, or hundreds of kilometers deep in the remote wilderness. Dams can take many forms. They can be made of earth, rock, concrete, masonry, or even timber cribs. However, there’s one thing that all dams have in common: they can be dangerous. In Canada, some dams are owned privately. As an owner, you’re responsible for keeping your dam safe. Below are three reasons you should care.

1.      You have an obligation to keep the dam (and everything downstream of it) safe

It’s not always obvious but dam failure can pose a serious risk to the public. If a dam that impounds a reservoir or lake were to fail, it could potentially affect communities or populations hundreds of kilometers downstream. The onus to maintain, operate, and prevent dam failure lies firmly with the dam owner. An appropriate Dam Safety Management Program and frequent Dam Safety Reviews help to make sure that dams and spill structures are designed properly, and that owners identify and address any performance issues in a timely manner.

Related item: Dams, Levees & Impoundments

2.      You have an obligation to protect the public

Do members of the public access your dam, the reservoir it impounds, or perhaps the watercourse downstream of your spillway? If the answer is yes, you have a responsibility to keep them safe. History has shown that if you, the dam owner, do not maintain or operate your dam structure or facility with consideration for public interaction and safety, corporate and even personal litigation can result if a member of the public is harmed.

Dozens of people are unnecessarily injured or killed every year at and around dam structures. Hazards are not always obvious, and sometimes the most dangerous areas are the most unassuming. Low head dams, for example, are passive looking structures and are sometimes hard to even detect, yet they are often the biggest culprit when it comes to fatalities. Members of the public often do not understand the dangers that exist. That means it’s up to the dam owner to protect them.

An appropriate Public Safety Management System and frequent Public Safety Around Dams Assessments help make sure that all public activity is identified and appropriate measures are taken to protect the public, and you, the dam owner.

Related item: Waterpower & Dams: Designing for future generations

3.      You must be ready for an emergency

It is important for dam owners to be prepared in the unlikely event of an emergency. Picture this: It’s 2 a.m., your cell phone rings and wakes you up. The person on the other end is frantic. They say that your dam is failing. What do you do? Who do you call? Do you have a plan?

Although proper planning can greatly reduce the likelihood of a dam emergency, there is always a possibility that equipment malfunction, weather anomalies, or even sabotage could threaten the integrity of your dam.

It is important to develop an appropriate Emergency Response Plan to outline what steps your company should take in the event of a dam emergency. Who is responsible for what? What is the appropriate course of action? Can you prevent the impending failure?

It’s also important to develop an appropriate Emergency Preparedness Plan to aid emergency responders and downstream stakeholders. If the dam fails, where does the water go? How do we get everyone out? Who takes the lead?

These emergency plans are a dam owners’ last line of defense and can save many lives when developed and maintained properly.

Dams are valuable but potentially dangerous assets. Protect your community, and protect yourselves, by taking proper care of them. If you have questions, or would like to know more about dam safety, please don’t hesitate to contact me at Wendy.Warford@Stantec.com, or (709) 691-3503.

Wendy is a specialist in hydrotechnical and dam safety engineering, and volunteers in various capacities with the Canadian Dam Association (CDA). She is currently CDA’s Director for Newfoundland and Labrador, is a member of CDA’s Public Safety Around Dams Working Group, and is a member of CDA’s Membership Committee. Wendy’s strong background in water resources engineering and project management has enabled her to develop strong relationships with her clients throughout Atlantic Canada.

Picture this: It’s 2 a.m., your cell phone rings and wakes you up. The person on the other end is frantic. They say that your dam is failing. What do you do? Who do you call? Do you have a plan? 

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