1995 Dam Safety Conference
September 7, 1995
Becky Norton Dunlop
Thank you for the opportunity to be here with you today and to address the 1995 Virginia Dam Safety Conference. I want to commend you for the work that you do and its benefit to the natural resources of our Commonwealth. I also congratulate you on being not only a statewide conference but a national and indeed, international, conference. To those of you visiting our Commonwealth, we welcome you and please extend your visit a few days after the conference ends and enjoy the many sites and activities across our beautiful state.
One of the underlying principles that guide’s our natural resource policy-making is that people are our most important natural resource. Your work to assure dam safety benefits the people of Virginia by protecting their health and safety, their property, our valuable water resources and the beautiful land and property around these water resources. And, you are our people resources in developing safe, innovative ways in which to manage these dams across the Commonwealth. In fact, this area is a small microcosm that illustrates this core principle about people being our most important natural resources. I am grateful and appreciative of this fact.
I begin my remarks today by paying tribute to Mr. William Norris and the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association for their Best Maintained Dams Program. I was honored to speak at your Water Resources Conference last year when the awards were presented to the owners of the winning dams. The Best Maintained Dams Program exemplifies many of the principles of the Allen Administration by encouraging private sector solutions for resource conservation management. This program is a prime example of the success of private initiative. I understand the Best Maintained Dams Program was the recipient of your Association’s regional award of merit and has been cited as an outstanding example for other states to follow. I commend and congratulate the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association for their foresight and leadership in making this program a tremendous success.
Dam safety achieved some notoriety back in the 1970’s, mainly because of several rather catastrophic dam failures. A flurry of nationwide activity followed, including, of course, focus from the media.
Let me note on this point about media attention: It would be nice to see a headline every year, “Virginia’s Dam Program Records Another Near Perfect Year.” You do have a tremendous record of safety and stellar, dependable performance and I remain hopeful that someday your positive, exemplary record will receive the notice and recognition that it is due. Now, back to the bad news of the 1970’s. The Corps of Engineers’ inventory and inspection program was also included in the flurry of activity, as were other public awareness programs. Prior to these activities, little attention was paid to dams outside a very select circle of engineers and other professionals in the field.
One outgrowth of this interest and activity was a concern over the safety of non-federal dams. Non-federal dams were usually smaller than federal dams, and no one entity seemed to be responsible for them. This circumstance -no clear ownership and accountability- exemplifies the “tragedy of the commons,” a circumstance in which a resource is considered everyone’s, and therefore, no one’s for the purpose of care and maintenance. Of the 80,000 or so dams in this country, about 4,000 came under some kind of federal oversight. The other 76,000 dams were owned by a wide range of entities such as state and local governments, home owners associations, or private individuals. Most of these owners had a very limited knowledge -if any- about dams. In addition, very few states had any kind of dam safety law.
A major and most appropriate debate ensued over the responsibility for dam safety, the proper roles of the federal government, state government, private consulting engineers, private citizens, and, last but not least, the dam owners. The fundamental precept that grew out of this debate was that the owner of each dam is responsible for its condition and safety, and each state has the responsibility to protect the lives and property of its citizens -the responsibility, if you will, for public safety. There was pretty much unanimous agreement that no one wanted the federal government to jump in and require owners to upgrade their dams to meet some federal standards. It has, therefore, become the responsibility of each state to ensure dam safety. Where dam safety is lacking, you can be sure that federal intrusion is inevitably invited.
Virginia’s dam safety program is based on this fundamental two-pronged approach: the responsibility for the safety of each dam rests with its owner, and the Commonwealth is responsible for the safety of its citizens. This exemplifies the principles of the Allen Administration -to encourage personal responsibility and individual stewardship, to enhance private initiative, and to assure that government is assisting and encouraging private stewardship, not putting up barriers or government props to discourage private stewardship.
I understand that your Association of State Dam Safety Officials has been very instrumental in the encouragement of state dam safety programs throughout the country. With this kind of cooperation, you have been able to demonstrate that the states can achieve this public policy objective without any need for unnecessary federal constraints. This is certainly were the decisions need to be made -at the local level- and not by far-removed federal agencies in Washington, D.C.
Virginia’s dam safety program relies on a three-way cooperative arrangement. It involves the owner, who is ultimately responsible for the safety of each dam; the private sector, which provides the needed engineering assistance; and the government -in this case, the Soil and Water Conservation Board, which ensures that the public safety is protected and served. We rely on the cooperation of this partnership of owners, the private sector, and public officials to provide a balanced approach. Virginia’s program contrasts with that of the many states that rely more heavily on government.
The Virginia program is based on the basic policy that private owners should pay for the necessary improvements and most of the cost of oversight. The owner furnishes the professional engineer of his or her choice to perform inspections and to make recommendations for each dam’s safety. This cost is borne by the owner. The Commonwealth provides staff for coordination and oversight. And the dam owner benefits by protecting his or her investment with minimal government involvement. This arrangement has served the Commonwealth well, and we will continue to ensure the safety of Virginians and their property.
Dams are an integral and essential part of the infrastructure of our state and our nation. With proper maintenance, engineers tell us that a dam can last a very long time. There are some parts that wear out and need replacement from time to time. In addition, we need to understand what is essential to protect our citizens from the hazards of unsafe dams.
The Timberlake dam near Lynchburg failed under the onslaught of exceptionally heavy rains in June. This was certainly a tragedy and tragic loss. It serves to remind us dams cannot not be taken for granted. You, of course, are aware of this on a daily basis. For the rest of us, we need an occasional reminder that nature is dynamic and constantly changing and that unusual natural events such as large floods can occur anywhere. Periodically, a catastrophe occurs that exceeds the level of design for a dam. Dams are generally designed with a very sound basis of risk analysis built in. Unfortunately, we received a very vivid reminder of the power of nature and that even low probability risks are still risks that may and do occur.
I have been pleased, gratified, and proud of the cooperation evidenced among the key state agencies in their work during and following the June floods. Virginia requires emergency action plans for each certified dam. These have proved very helpful when responding to emergencies and have been invaluable in coordinating work through the Department of Emergency Services.
No amount of regulations can replace the need for an approach based on sound science when it comes to evaluating dams. Each dam is different and needs to be treated individually. This is a fundamental principle in the area of natural resources and is evidenced the world over. All environmental challenges are site and situation specific because our resources differ from location to location and circumstance to circumstance. Such is the case with dams, not only because each is sited in different resources and different circumstances, but each design is different and each much be dealt with individually. We rely on professionals to make those necessary judgment decisions and recommendations through the Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board and both of these circumstances points out once again that people are our most important natural resource.
Virginia’s program for safety of dams has made good progress in recent years. As we look toward the twenty-first century, the need for safe dams will remain. This requires continual cooperation amongst all of us if we expect to protect the lives and property of the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Thank you again for allowing me to participate with you today. I know you have an aggressive and busy schedule, so I’ll let you get back on schedule. I hope you have a successful conference and, more importantly, that the ultimate result will be enhanced protection of the lives and property of our citizens.