FEMA says emergency system for Savage River Dam in Maryland is example of program successes (Photo courtesy of Federal Emergency Management Agency)

President Bush has signed legislation that would increase authorized funds for dam safety programs. The bill, signed into law on Dec. 2, provides a four-year extension for the National Dam Safety Program, which was created in 1996 and is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The measure, titled the National Dam Safety and Security Act, authorizes $6 million a year for safety grants for state agencies, up from $4 million in fiscal 2002. States are responsible for overseeing 95% of the 78,000 dams in the U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who introduced the House version of the bill, says about 10,000 dams are classified as potentially high-hazard.

The legislation also increases annual research funds by 50%, to $1.5 million. In addition, it provides $500,000 for safety training, a 67% hike; and $600,000 for FEMA personnel.

All of those authorized amounts are subject to annual appropriations.

The bill was supported by the American Society of Civil Engineers, National Governors Association and Association of State Dam Safety Officials. ASCE President Thomas L. Jackson said the signing of the measure "comes at a critical point in our nation's history as we collectively work to minimize the potential security risks threatening our infrastructure." FEMA is one of the agencies that will become part of the new Dept. of Homeland Security.

Doug Johnson, president of the Association of Dam Safety Officials, said, "The benefits of dams are matched by their potential risk to the public." He adds that the program "helps state and federal regulators minimize this risk while ensuring that vital lifeline services provided by dams, such as hydropower and domestic and industrial water supply, are uninterrupted."

In its 2000-2001 report to Congress on the dam safety program, FEMA said the number of state dam inspections in that two-year span totaled 16,000, a 25% increase from the 1998-1999 period.

Among the "success stories" that FEMA cited in that report was the Savage River Dam in western Maryland. The agency said that while developing an emergency action plan for that dam, officials decided to develop an automated "call-down" system to notify people in the area who were at risk should the dam fail.