Magnum, D.I. (Dam Investigator)
As we approach the dam inspection season, it is incumbent upon dam owners, regulators and those of us responsible for inspecting and evaluating the safety of dams to question previously-established “facts” and rationalizations such as “it’s always been that way.”
The six-person independent forensic team charged with investigating the February 2017 Oroville spillway incident ultimately concluded that “although the practice of dam safety has certainly improved since the 1970s, the fact that this incident happened to the owner of the tallest dam in the United States, under regulation of a federal agency, with repeated evaluation by reputable outside consultants, in a state with a leading dam safety regulatory program, is a wake-up call for everyone involved in dam safety.”
We need to think of ourselves as private investigators of dams, similar to the old Hardy Boys novels that I grew up with. Not because it’s fun (although it admittedly is), but because that’s essentially what we are. Instead of solving The Shore Road Mystery like Frank and Joe Hardy – which I’m currently reading with my son right now – we use our knowledge of dams and powers of deduction to solve The Mystery of the Hairline Crack or to determine the cause of The Sinister Seepage.
We must be careful not to normalize defects that could lead to dam failure. Seemingly innocuous conditions may be a clue to an underlying flaw. A good example of this is the herringbone crack pattern that developed at the Oroville spillway. These cracks had always been there and changed very little over the years. However, they were an observable result of an underlying flaw in the spillway’s construction that contributed to the near-failure of the Oroville spillway.
The act of reviewing all the ways a dam could potentially fail in conjunction with dam inspections is a beneficial process, but it will ultimately fail if not combined with critical thought by experienced professionals. Careful consideration of historical documentation is crucial, which is why a thorough review of this information prior to the inspection is so important.
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