RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam has proclaimed May 31, 2019 as Virginia Dam Safety Awareness Day in Virginia, encouraging individuals and communities across the Commonwealth to understand risk and to take steps to prevent dam failures.
This marks the second consecutive year Virginia has participated in Dam Safety Awareness Day, which was created to commemorate the Great Flood of 1889, caused by a catastrophic dam failure, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. More than 2,200 people died, making it the nation’s worst dam-related disaster to date. The failure was attributed to days of heavy rain and a series of alterations that made the dam unsafe.
“The safety of Virginia’s dams are a critical shared responsibility between dam owners and the communities,” said Governor Northam. “It’s important this Dam Safety Awareness Day that all Virginians are aware of the dams in their communities and understand the flood risks related to improperly constructed or maintained dams.”
Dams can fail at any time for a number of reasons, including overtopping caused by precipitation or flooding, construction deficiencies, or structural failure of materials used to make up the impoundment. Across the United States, aging dams are an issue. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that seven in 10 dams will be 50 years or older by 2025.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is charged with regulating more than 2,000 dams in the Commonwealth. The majority are privately owned.
“As we work make the Commonwealth more resilient to flooding and extreme weather, more needs to be done to bolster dam safety,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Owners of regulated dams are required to construct, alter, and operate their dams according to state regulations designed to protect people and property. While many owners are playing by the rules, 71 percent of state-regulated dams are not in compliance with these important safety standards, presenting an unacceptable and preventable threat to many Virginians. ”
Many communities across Virginia saw their wettest year on record in 2018, and numerous dams overtopped resulting in damage or partial failure during or after heavy, prolonged rain events. Ahead of this hurricane season, dam owners are encouraged to work with their private engineers to ensure their dams are functioning in a safe manner and are in compliance with state regulations.
The Dam Safety Inventory System, launched in 2018, is an online tool dam owners and private engineers can use to streamline interactions with DCR. This includes the submission of forms for inspections, permits, inundation studies, and emergency plans.
“Dam safety is public safety as dam-related failures can happen at any time day or night, wet or dry,” said DCR Director Clyde E. Cristman. “In addition to the responsibilities dam owners have to maintain their dams, Virginians should be aware of dams in the areas where they live and work. They should have flood insurance if they live near or below a dam and have a plan in place in case they need to evacuate quickly because of failure. Flooding from dam failures can be more sudden and violent than stream, river, and coastal flooding.”
Public tours of two state-owned dams at Pocahontas State Park are planned for May 31 starting at 1 p.m. The tours will be led by state dam safety engineers and cover the history and purpose of Beaver Lake and Swift Creek dams.
More information about the Virginia Dam Safety Program is available here.
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