DamsMonitoring dams to protect Kentucky water front communities

Published 13 April 2018

Out of the approximately 90,000 dams in the United States, roughly 90 percent are state, municipal or privately-owned. That makes two-thirds of the dams in America—regulating the flow of canals, generating power and protecting communities from flooding—subject to greater variation in safety standards and disaster preparedness than the rest.

Out of the approximately 90,000 dams in the United States, roughly 90 percent are state, municipal or privately-owned. That makes two-thirds of the dams in America—regulating the flow of canals, generating power and protecting communities from flooding—subject to greater variation in safety standards and disaster preparedness than the rest.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has been researching ways to minimize risk from a dam failure and improve the response capability of stakeholders in affected areas. The Kentucky Division of Water and S&T’s Flood Apex program are working together to establish a means of monitoring dams and alerting the communities and property owners of potential dangers. This is a lengthy process that involves understanding the shortcomings of available dam-related information and the technologies available to fill the gaps.

“It’s very low-probability, but extremely high-consequence,” said Carey Johnson of Kentucky Division of Water, working with the DHS S&T to improve the safety and awareness of these dam-centric communities nationwide.

S&T says that because the likelihood of a dam failure is expected to be minimal, communities and property owners surrounding dams might easily embrace their land as any other lake-side or ocean-side residence. The truth, however, is that if these dams were to fail, the volume and force of water could compare to a small tsunami affecting nearby towns and residences. Because these are state, local, and privately-owned dams, recovery efforts would ultimately come at the expense of local taxpayers and dam owners.

Twenty-five dams failed when Hurricane Matthew hit South Carolina in 2016, resulting in significant damage to homes and downstream infrastructure. This was only a year after 51 state-regulated dams failed in the historic floods of 2015. Events like these have spurred the need for increased awareness of state, local, and privately-owned dams, and better preparation and risk communication in surrounding communities.

“The breaches during Hurricane Matthew are an example of what we want to be ready for,” said Dr. David Alexander, S&T Flood Apex Program Director, “The right precautions, monitoring and warnings could help us reduce injuries, fatalities and property losses.”