After a long winter with many of us spending even more time indoors than ever before, I have a feeling many of us will be heading out in droves this summer to enjoy our national lakes, streams, and rivers. These waterways provide us with invaluable benefits such as wildlife habitats, tourism, navigation, and recreation. No matter where you are in the country, there is a good chance you are not too far from a dam. Dams provide additional benefits in the form of flood control and renewable energy from hydropower. However, they can also create a safety hazard for those who get too close.
According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, there were 53 public safety incidents in the news nationwide in 2020, including 38 deaths and 18 injuries. Not all public safety incidents are reported in the news, so the actual number of incidents is likely much higher. Most of these incidents occur when people get too close to restricted areas at dams, and could be prevented by keeping a safe distance away from dams and learning about the dangers associated with them. Although warning signs and floating safety barricades are present at almost all dams, people do not always take them seriously since they are not aware of the immense power of water flowing near dams and the presence of hazards below the water.
To increase national awareness of the potential safety hazards of dams and encourage all to practice dam safety, National Dam Safety Awareness Day is commemorated on May 31st.
This date was not selected arbitrarily but rather to coincide with the anniversary of the South Fork Dam failure, which occurred in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on May 31st, 1889. The dam failure and subsequent flood, commonly referred to as the Johnstown Flood, claimed the lives of over 2,200 people and caused widespread property damage. It is the deadliest dam failure in the history of the United States and one of the deadliest dam failures to have occurred worldwide. It is now understood that the failure was due to significant changes made to the dam that deviated heavily from the original design. This should serve as a reminder that ensuring the public’s safety is paramount when it come to the design, modification, and maintenance of our nation’s dams.
Of course, dam safety involves more than just designing and maintaining dams with safety in mind, it also involves adequate warning systems by dam owners and recreationists exercising caution near dams. With the holiday weekend approaching, before you hit the water this summer, be sure to spend some time learning about the hazards dams present, observe any warning signs and devices, and do not forget to wear a life jacket.