Dams and levees provide the citizens of Ohio with essential benefits such as water supply, flood control, recreation and irrigation. While dams have multiple benefits, they also represent a risk to public safety and economic infrastructure if they are not properly maintained. Over the past three years, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has made reducing this risk and improving dam safety a top priority. Each year Dam Safety engineers and staff conduct more than 350 detailed inspections of dams on a five-year schedule. These inspections are completed along major watersheds to gain field efficiencies and to inter-relate hydrology of dams in a watershed. Reports detailing necessary repair and maintenance are then provided to the owner. Dam Safety then seeks compliance as necessary for any deficiencies noted.
Environmental, Economic and Public Importance
- An ample supply of water from both on-stream and off-stream reservoirs is critical for manufacturing and other companies looking to locate or expand in Ohio.
- Flood control dams protect tens of billions of dollars of private and public investments.
- Dam and levee failures can cause extensive damage. E.g. failure of the Silver Lake Basin in Michigan destroyed 20 homes and caused more than $100 million in damage.
- Water behind dams can augment stream flow in dry summer months, protecting downstream aquatic habitat.
- Approximately eleven million visitors took advantage of boating and swimming recreation opportunities on Ohio State Park lakes.
- More than three million people get their drinking water from surface water reservoirs impounded by dams.
In Fiscal Year 2010 program staff conducted 353 inspections including 79 Class I dams using the watershed-scheduling plan. In addition, the program partnered with U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA on the inspection of coal ash impoundments. The program completed successful enforcement projects including the breaching of two hazardous dams in Lorain and Mahoning counties. Emergency preparedness successes include implementation of a new FEMA-funded initiative for Emergency Action Plan development and public outreach. The program developed a pilot project for modified surety requirements for the construction of new upground reservoirs, and implemented a new fee schedule with a compliant dam discount.
History of Dam Safety in Ohio
Construction of dams in Ohio dates back to the early 1800's when reservoirs such as Buckeye Lake and Grand Lake St. Marys were built to supply water to the canal system, which provided a means of transportation for agricultural trade and commerce. Dam construction continued at a modest pace for about the next 100 years with relatively few dams built by private entities. In the early part of the 19th century, several large municipally-owned dams and reservoirs were built for public water supply. Severe floods also prompted the formation of Conservancy Districts which constructed dams for flood control.
Although the true forerunner of current dam safety laws in Ohio was enacted in 1963, legislation pertaining to the construction of dams was enacted as early as 1937. This early set of laws aimed to encourage construction of dams for the storage of water, in response to recent drought periods in Ohio and the "dust bowl" days on the Great Plains. The regulatory agency responsible for the enforcement of these early laws was the Division of Conservation and Natural Resources in the State Department of Agriculture.
Due to the availability of large earthmoving equipment after World War II, Ohio saw a significant increase in the number of dams built by individuals and private companies. Although the water storage and recreational capabilities provided by these dams were important benefits, concern about the adequacy of design and construction was prompted by the loss of life and property damage resulting from dam failures. This led to a greater interest in dam safety.
The ODNR Division of Soil and Water Resources, and formerly the Division of Water, has been involved in dam safety since 1963. During this year, the first Ohio law requiring construction permits for building new dams was enacted. In addition, following the failure of several dams in northeast Ohio during the severe flood of 1969, the General Assembly revised the law to include periodic inspections of existing structures. This was done to help assure that the continued operation and use of a dam or levee does not pose a hazard to life, health, or property. In 1972, the failure of Buffalo Creek Dam in West Virginia, which caused great loss of life and severe property damage, led to the enactment of the National Dam Safety Act. This law, administered by the Corp of Engineers, called for an inventory of dams in the United States and the inspection of those that could create the most hazard if they failed. The Corps contracted with the Division of Water to inventory roughly 4500 non-federal dams in Ohio.