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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dam Safety Program Transformation

When it comes to changing organizational culture, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Dam Safety Community of Practice (CoP) takes its job seriously. Until recently, 41 different USACE district offices had responsibility for dam safety and construction. But thanks to recent transformation efforts, the CoP consolidated these operations into seven robust centers that provide expert guidance on a regional level.

“We have fully embraced the concept to make dam safety modifications better,” said Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety. “It took significant cultural change to do that,” he noted, “but it’s positioning us well for the future.”

Halpin said the new changes reflect a commitment to organizational strengthening that can serve as a model agencywide. Given the age of many dams and the need for modernization, he believes the new structure is essential for a risk assessment process to identify the most pressing needs in a systematic way. And along the way, he added, “We’re getting our mystique back!”

 

Risk Assessment and Response

In fiscal year 2005, USACE began its transition to risk-informed decision-making when it launched the Screening for Portfolio Risk Analysis (SPRA), an initial screening level risk assessment of the entire USACE portfolio of dams. In its simplest terms, SPRA considers current dam behavior, how well it meets current design criteria, and potential consequences of dam failure. Today, USACE uses the results from this risk-informed approach to ensure that limited funding reaches top-priority sites. More than 90 percent of USACE dams are at least 30 years old, and the typical dam is 55 years old. Perhaps not surprisingly given their advanced age, the dynamic nature of risk, and changes to the state of the practice, almost half require improvements.

Clint Dougherty inspects one of the eight tainter gates, a type of radial arm floodgate to control water flow, at Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River. Formed behind the dam at Fort Thompson is Lake Sharpe, in central South Dakota. USACE photo

Clint Dougherty inspects one of the eight tainter gates, a type of radial arm floodgate to control water flow, at Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River. Formed behind the dam at Fort Thompson is Lake Sharpe, in central South Dakota. USACE photo

Overall, Halpin said these dams require $26 billion in repairs. Yet USACE only receives about $500 million per year to make dam repairs and improvements. That mismatch between need and available funding has led to the need to manage risk and prioritize needs.

As a result, USACE is strategic with its limited resources and, in some cases, takes short-term and interim measures to buy down risk. For example, USACE may lower the reservoir level at some dams to reduce risk in the interim, he said. “Later, we can make a more permanent and measured investment over time,” Halpin noted.

These shorter-term measures are essential to reduce risk to individuals and communities, he said. In 2011, for example, flooding caused $9 billion in damage, including $2 billion in damage to USACE’s flood damage reduction infrastructure. Yet analysis also showed that the USACE dam and levee systems prevented another $141 billion of additional damage.

“Many of our dams in 2011 made record releases and avoided significant flood damage,” he said.

Halpin credits this success to a modernized planning process that leads to streamlined decision-making. “We have fully embraced the concept that decisions need to be scaled to the level of the task. It has to be done smarter and faster.”

One prime example of USACE’s new approach is at Pine Creek Lake in Oklahoma. Inspectors found a major crack that posed significant risk for those living nearby. By embracing the concepts of Planning Modernization, the study and decision document that previously would have taken four to five years will be completed in about 24 months. “We want to collect the best information and leverage our expertise,” he said.

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