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Dam Safety

With a new dam safety regulation drafted and the National Risk Management Center up and running, USACE’s Dam Safety Program is reaching new milestones.

For the past five years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) put its portfolio of approximately 675 dams through the first level of rigor in its risk analysis methodology, Screening for Portfolio Risk Analysis (SPRA). This screening yielded a clear but basic understanding of where the greatest risks and priorities are located.

Now that SPRA is complete, USACE placed all of its dams into a dam safety action classification based upon project risk considerations, and its 12 highest-risk dams are either under construction or undergoing a modification report. USACE now moves further into its risk management process and portfolio investment plan, which includes routine and non-routine activities, and organizational and administrative improvements to the safety program.

Nearly 95 percent of the dams managed by USACE are more than 30 years old, and 52 percent have reached or exceeded the 50-year service lives for which they were designed. Because USACE is responsible for making sure its dams do not present unacceptable risks to the public, it underwent a transition to risk informed decision-making, which quantifies risk, or how three main elements of risk often combine in unexpected and illuminating ways: The likelihood that natural events will take place, the performance of the infrastructure during these events, and the consequences of failure – loss of life being of paramount concern. In this manner, risk allows USACE to peer into the tangle of project purposes, ecosystems, constrained budgets, the uncertainty of future events and current knowledge, past design decisions, and combinations of these factors and make sense of it all.

According to Eric Halpin, USACE’s special assistant for Dam and Levee Safety, completing SPRA has allowed USACE to develop a Portfolio Investment Plan for more than 300 dams within the portfolio determined to be “actionable,” or posing moderate to extremely high risks. “That plan was developed, and we’ve implemented it this past year,” he said. “We have been investing about a half a billion dollars a year in dam safety modifications, essentially fixing the problems we find within the program. And what we’ve found out is that we have a substantial amount of dam safety modification work on the horizon, to the tune of about $26 billion right now. So this Portfolio Investment Plan has led us to a couple of other actions this year.”

Spill test at Chief Joseph Dam in 2009, on the Columbia River in Washington. Chief Joseph Dam is the second-largest hydropower-producing dam in the United States. It is the largest hydropower-producing dam operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alone it produces enough power to supply the Seattle metropolitan area. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nola Leyde

The Portfolio Investment Plan was developed by a new national organization established by USACE: the Risk Management Center (RMC), which became operational in November 2009. The RMC, said Halpin, has two primary offices – one in Denver, Colo., and another in Pittsburgh, Pa. – and continues to staff its organizational elements. The RMC will also play an important role in USACE’s future engineering and construction efforts as a permanent centralized home for risk-assessment competency in USACE. It works closely with the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Dam Safety Division, and various professional organizations such as the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the U.S. Society of Dams, and the Association of Engineering Geologists.

“In support of that,” Halpin said, “we’ve also stood up a Mapping, Modeling, and Consequence Production Center in Vicksburg, Miss., which essentially looks at the hydrologic modeling and the flood mapping that goes with that, and the estimation of consequences in loss of life and property damage that could occur from a dam failure. That’s the data we use both in risk assessments and in assessing critical infrastructure, protection programs, and in updating emergency action plans. So we’ve centralized that in Vicksburg, and it’s a national effort that has already done about 200 mapping efforts.”

Given the substantial workload indicated by USACE’s screening-level analyses, the organization is now actively engaged in analyzing itself, as well, asking: How will it make dams safer for many decades in the future? USACE’s National Technical Competency Team, formed in 2007 to evaluate the organization’s future mission and workload, has selected dam safety to be the most urgent of its missions. “The portfolio investment plan, along with a critical review of our technical competencies, form the basis of our evaluation for how to best organize our agency approach to dam safety and to look at how we might better position ourselves to do dam safety work in the future. That’s really the big look ahead: How we’re going to design and construct all of these fixes.”

To determine the nature of those fixes, USACE will have to go beyond initial screenings – an effort already under way for the most critical, high-risk dams in its portfolio. These higher-level analyses – the Issue Evaluation and Dam Safety Modification Studies – are poised to accelerate considerably in the coming year.

“We’ve started the process that will lead us to doing roughly 40 or 50 Issue Evaluation studies per year,” Halpin said. “This past year, we’ve completed a number of Issue Evaluation studies, and those are informing the fiscal 2012 budget.”

Halpin said the most significant event for the dam safety program to occur in the past year was the completion of a comprehensive dam safety regulation that will fully embrace and operationalize USACE’s new risk-informed approach. “We had a comprehensive dam safety regulation in place before we went to a program that was risk-informed,” he said, “and most of the decision-making laid out in it was based on traditional and deterministic methods – we relied primarily on a district-centric decision process. The new process that incorporates risk in the regulation keeps the routine dam safety activities led at a district level, but for significant dam safety investments – for assessing and modifying dams – it essentially calls for a national-level approach, where decisions are made jointly among the districts, divisions, and headquarters. The biggest single change in the regulation is that our decisions are now risk-informed, and nationally and jointly decided.” The regulation, which has already been used on USACE’s 2010 Issue Evaluation and Modification studies, is scheduled to become final in late 2010.

Overall, the past year has been one of tremendous progress in USACE’s Dam Safety Program, as many different elements finally made it out of the planning stages and began to achieve real momentum. “It’s been a significant year for the Dam Safety Program,” said Halpin, “mostly because we’ve really transitioned from developing and testing new organizational policies, procedures, and organizational elements to actually operationalizing. We’ve kind of gone into a production mode, if you will, with all the good ideas we’ve put in place over the last couple of years.”

This article first appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...