MADISON, Wis. – With over 90,000 dams across the country – including 3,900 in Wisconsin alone – dams are an essential part of the infrastructure in the United States. May 31 is National Day Safety Awareness Day, established to recognize the importance of maintaining safe dams.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Dam Safety Team provides technical assistance to dam owners in Wisconsin. This support includes:
- Conducting and reviewing inspections;
- Identifying risks at dams;
- Responding during emergencies; and
- Reviewing dam repair plans.
Private individuals, municipalities, lake districts, or federal agencies can all own dams in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin DNR owns about 300 dams, most of which were created to generate recreational opportunities like fishing, hunting, and boating. When recreating near any dam, it is essential to maintain a safe distance from the dam and to utilize designated portage areas if available.
Many dams in Wisconsin were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, water pressure and weathering will slowly break down a dam. If left unmaintained, dams pose an increased risk to life and property, making problems such as sudden breaks more likely during flood conditions.
The issue of dam safety was not widely recognized until 1889 when the failure of South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, claimed more than 2,200 lives and was the worst dam failure in United States history. National Dam Safety Awareness Day commemorates this tragic failure and encourages people to recognize the responsibility to maintain safe, operational dams.
The most common problems found during dam inspections are undesirable woody vegetation on the embankment, deteriorated concrete, inoperable gates and corroded outlet pipes.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that the cost to rehabilitate the nation’s non-federal high hazard dams, or those whose failure could cause loss of life, exceeds $20 billion. Rehabilitation is an integral part of maintaining or improving the safety of dams. The DNR provides dam repair and removal grants to assist owners with making their dams safer.
For more information regarding your local risk, your role in dam safety and the benefits and impacts of dams, visit the DNR dam safety webpage.