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Protecting lives and property: --DEC's Dam safety program.

Photos by DEC

Beavers, New York's official mammal, are quite common in our water-rich state. If their chosen habitat doesn't suit their needs, they change their surroundings by building a dam to impound water. These miniature engineers cleverly construct their dams and then carefully maintain them to keep them nearly watertight. If their dam fails, it can be problematic for a beaver family, and disastrous for anything living downstream.

Human residents of New York have also been "busy beavers," building more than 5,500 dams across the state for various purposes. There is likely a dam--of the human-built variety--not far from where you live. These structures are important, providing a water supply, flood control, hydroelectric power and recreational opportunities. But, like beaver dams, roads, bridges, and all of N.Y.'s infrastructure, dams must be maintained and periodically restored to ensure their continued safe and reliable operation.

The majority of the dams in New York are privately owned; the rest are owned by local governments, the state, public utilities or even the federal government. State environmental law gives the responsibility of operating and maintaining a dam in a safe condition to the dam's owner, and requires the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to make sure these owners understand and do what is required to ensure a dam's integrity. DEC's dam safety program is responsible for conducting dam inspections, reviewing dam construction permits, and making sure owners perform maintenance, conduct necessary repairs, and undertake other activities to ensure the safety of dams.

Dams are classified in terms of the potential for downstream damage if they were to fail. High Hazard dams are those whose failure could cause loss of human life or interrupt critical infrastructure such as an interstate highway. Intermediate Hazard dams are ones whose failure could cause damage to homes and important utilities, severe environmental damage, or other serious economic damage. Low Hazard dams are dams whose failure could cause damage to isolated buildings and local roads, or minor environmental or economic damage. Of course, no matter the classification, it is important to avoid a breach in any dam.

In August, 2009, DEC adopted a revised set of dam safety regulations that provide flexibility for dam owners--especially owners of small dams--while improving the safeguards necessary to protect communities and infrastructure. The regulations require dam inspections, regular maintenance, better recordkeeping, and emergency planning; dam owners must meet these safety standards. Owners of high and intermediate hazard dams must annually certify that the dam's inspection and maintenance plan, emergency action plan, and other requirements are being met.

Maintaining a dam can be challenging for its owner. In New York, approximately 58 percent of dams are at least 50 years old, and 30 percent are at least 80 years old. In addition to the age of dams, owners must factor in climate change. Storms and hurricanes with heavy rainfall are becoming more common, so dams that might have been stout enough when they were built, could be vulnerable now or in the future, even if they have been well maintained. Owners may also have to contend with "hazard creep."

When development occurs downstream of a dam, it can cause the dam's hazard potential to increase, raising the safety requirements for the dam and the regulatory obligations of the owner. Maintaining and/or improving older dams can be expensive, especially if a dam had been previously neglected. However, as dam failures around the nation have proven, even a relatively small dam failure can be more costly in terms of dollars, or even lives, than the maintenance expense. Consistent inspection, maintenance, and an up-to-date Emergency Action Plan are the best ways for dam owners to avoid a costly dam failure.

For New Yorkers, the most memorable dam failure in recent history occurred on July 2, 2005, when the Hadlock Pond Dam, a high hazard dam in the town of Fort Ann, Washington County, failed. About 520 million gallons of water were released. Flood flows from the dam failure caused extensive damage downstream, totaling about $10 million, including the destruction of several homes. Fortunately, prompt activation of the Emergency Action Plan for the dam alerted downstream residents and helped to prevent any casualties. Through New York's current dam safety regulations and DEC's inspection and enforcement programs, we have strong safeguards in place to prevent another dam failure in the state.

Dams are an important part of the infrastructure that enables our modern lifestyle. Failures are rare, and society's experience with dams over the last century has taught us how to better prevent or minimize the damage from dam failures. Nevertheless, a dam failure can be devastating. DEC is committed to continue working with dam owners and engineers to ensure the safe use of these structures.

As for the beavers? They seem to be doing just fine.

Leila Mitchell works in DEC's Division of Water office in Albany. Alon Dominitz is the chief of DEC's Dam Safety Section, located in Albany.

To Learn More

Check out "On the Front Lines"--DEC's new video staff profile series which features, among others, Dam Safety Section staff Alon Dominitz and Jennifer Ross. You can view their video at to learn more about the lives and crucial daily work of these two Division of Water engineers.

Alon Dominitz: Protecting Dams and Public Safety

Alon Dominitz (pictured on page 21) was born in Israel and grew up in a desert. So, it may seem a bit surprising that his job at DEC focuses on water.

Alon is the chief of the Division of Water's Dam Safety Section, a position he has held since 2005. He manages the technical program that regulates the safety of more than 5,500 dams in New York State, ranging from large concrete structures to smaller earthen dams. This program includes safety inspections; technical reviews of proposed dam construction or modification; and monitoring of remedial work to ensure it complies with New York's dam safety criteria and law.

Ensuring dam owners fulfill their obligations to identify structural deficiencies and maintain the integrity of their dams may not sound glamorous, but it can be vital to ensure any potential problems are found and corrected before they present a serious public safety risk. In the summer of 2005, Alon saw firsthand the devastating impact of the Hadlock Dam failure in Washington County, including homes that were swept away and extensive community devastation. Those memories reinforce the importance of the work he and dam safety staff perform.

Alon's family moved to New York City when he was a child. He later attended Cooper Union, earning Bachelor's and Master's degree in civil engineering, His next stop was DEC, where he regulated air pollution sources in the City. After he obtained his Professional Engineer's license, he was promoted to the Dam Safety Section.

Alon is passionate about protecting the environment and public safety. He and his staff conduct approximately 450 inspections a year, and work with dam owners and communities to minimize risks.

"People who live downstream of a dam have no way to know if that dam is safe. Our job is to ensure dam owners fulfill their responsibility to make sure it's safe," he says.

When he's not working, Alon stays connected to the outdoors, and can often be found mountain biking, skiing, hiking, camping, or kayaking.

Caption: DEC conducts inspections and oversees maintenance of municipally and privately owned dams. Dams--like Gilboa and Mongaup Falls-provide reservoirs for drinking water, generate energy, and support outdoor recreation.

Caption: About 520 million gallons of water were released by the Hadlock Pond Dam failure in 2015 which caused extensive damage to homes, washed out roads and bridges, and deposited debris downstream.
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Author:Mitchell, Leila; Dominitz, Alon
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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