The Commission has the largest dam safety program in the United States. The Commission cooperates with a large number of federal and state agencies to ensure and promote dam safety and, more recently, homeland security.
Approximately 3,036 dams are in the program. Two-thirds of these dams are more than 50 years old. As dams age, concern over their safety and integrity grows, and oversight and a regular inspection program are extremely important.
The Commission staff inspects projects on an unscheduled basis to investigate:
- potential dam safety problems;
- complaints about constructing and operating a project;
- safety concerns related to natural disasters; and
- issues concerning compliance with the terms and conditions of a license.
Every 5 years an independent consulting engineer, approved by the Commission, must inspect and evaluate projects with dams higher than 32.8 feet (10 meters), or with a total storage capacity of more than 2,000 acre-feet (2.5 million cubic meters).
Many FERC-regulated project dams are located in seismically active areas like California and the Pacific Northwest. Due to concern that seismic events will adversely affect dams, the Commission retains the services of consultants for help at specific dams. Also, the Commission staff monitors and evaluates seismic research in geographic areas where there are concerns about possible seismic activity. This information is applied in investigating and performing structural analyses of hydroelectric projects in these potentially affected areas.
The Commission staff also evaluates the effects of potential and actual large floods on the safety of dams. During and following floods, the Commission staff visits project dams and licensed projects, determines the extent of damage, if any, and directs any necessary studies or remedial measures the licensee must undertake. The Commission publishes "Engineering Guidelines for the Evaluation of Hydropower Projects". This guides the Commission's engineering staff and licensees in evaluating dam safety. Additional chapters are being prepared and existing chapters are frequently revised to reflect current information and methodologies.
The Commission requires licensees to prepare emergency action plans and conducts training sessions on how to develop and test these plans. The plans are designed to serve as an early warning system if there is a potential for, or a sudden release of water from, a dam failure or accident to the dam. The plans include operational procedures that may be used, such as reducing reservoir levels and reducing downstream flows and procedures for notifying affected residents and agencies responsible for emergency management. These plans are frequently updated and tested to ensure that in emergency situations everyone knows what to do - thus saving lives and minimizing property damage.