Environment | Law | Opinion

David Ganje: Aging dams stuck in regulatory limbo in South Dakota

Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Photo: U.S. Army Corps

SD’s dams caught in regulatory limbo
By David Ganje
For The Native Sun News Today

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports the average age of our nation’s dams is 52 years.

By 2020, 70 percent of the total dams in the United States will be over 50 years old. Fifty years ago dams were built with the best engineering and construction standards of the times. But as the scientific and engineering data have improved, many dams are not expected to safely withstand current predictions regarding large floods and earthquakes.

In 1972 the extraordinary accumulation of rainfall in the Rapid Creek watershed caused the failure of the Canyon Lake Dam. This water accumulation resulted in the horrible Rapid City flood, and was the basis in part for the enactment of the National Dam Inspection Act of 1972.

The U. S. must put its political will into rehabilitating the nation’s infrastructure including dams. I will leave for another discussion matters of civil liability for operating a dam, dam management in Indian Country as well as important regulatory issues concerning maintenance and decommissioning of dams.

While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees federal dams in South Dakota and elsewhere, many of the state’s dams are caught in a regulatory limbo. County officials have long assumed smaller low-head dams are controlled by the state. State approval is not required on completion of all new dam construction under South Dakota law and rules.

State law does not consider dams under 25 feet high or holding 50 acre-feet of water to be dams at all. About 2,300 dams in South Dakota are subject to state regulation with most categorized as low-hazard dams. In the US dam safety programs are responsible for permitting, inspection, and enforcement authority for 80 percent of the nation’s dams. South Dakota is one of 26 states that have no requirement of emergency action procedures by owners for all dams.

According to a 2009 Report by the ASCE, 34 percent of dams described as high-hazard dams in South Dakota have no emergency action plan (EAP). An EAP (also called an Emergency Preparedness Plan, or EPP) is a predetermined plan of action to be taken including roles, responsibilities and procedures for surveillance, notification and evacuation to reduce the potential for loss of life and property damage in an area affected by a failure or negligent operation of a dam.

Pursuant to a report prepared for the National Dam Safety Review Board and the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, South Dakota was one of the 17 that does not report findings of violations or dam failures to the National Performance of Dams Program. High-hazard and state-owned dams in the state are inspected once every three years or on a case-by-case basis.

Read the rest of the story on the Native Sun News Today website: SD’s dams caught in regulatory limbo

(David Ganje of Ganje Law Offices practices in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law in South and North Dakota. He can be contacted at davidganje@ganjelaw.com) Copyright permission Native Sun News