Dams, spillways, levees: Sharing lessons learned and addressing future needs

Posted in: Energy, Military, Water


Mark your calendar for april 8-12, 2019 to attend the USSD Conference In Chicago. The theme is "Second City – Second Chances: Stories of Rehabilitation, Modification and Revitalization"

Mark your calendar for April 8-12, 2019 to attend the USSD Conference in Chicago. The theme is “Second City – Second Chances: Stories of Rehabilitation, Modification and Revitalization”

The Spring is conference season in the water, hydropower and dam engineering world. It’s a time connect with dam owners, key agency personnel and teaming partners. We learn about and share our latest innovations and engineering challenges related to dams and levees.

In just the past month, I’ve attended four excellent conferences that I encourage you to schedule to attend in 2019:

All four conferences were great opportunities to network and learn about upcoming opportunities. However, the USSD conference had the additional benefit of being very technically driven.

A Balancing Act: Dams, Levees and Ecosystems

The USSD is dedicated to advancing the role of dam and levee systems and building the community of practice. The USSD Conference began with a plenary session focused on:

  • Recovery from the 2017 Hurricane Season
  • Lessons learned by the USACE over 10 years of risk informed design and analysis
  • Lessons from major dam safety projects including Mosel Dam, Oroville Dam, and Adicks and Barker Dams.

One additional unique presentation was A Brief History on Human Factors Awareness & Training in Commercial Aviation by Christian Popp, a former airline pilot. Popp discussed the lessons learned by the airline industry in the 1970s and 80s when safety improvements had plateaued and related those lessons to dam safety. The most important lesson was the need for a learning culture and a just culture. 

Following the plenary session, I attended the Oroville and Dam Safety tracks. 

Oroville Dam Track

The Oroville Track included presentations on the warning and response to the emergency, an update on the repair efforts, and a discussion of the emergency response monitoring for the spillway. I was especially impressed by the scale of the emergency response monitoring, which involved 150 people for 92 days working 24/7. The firm leading the project had up to 52 people onsite and billed about $1,000,000 per month to this effort. Their onsite team worked 13 hour shifts 6-7 days a week for months at a time. Well done!

Dam Safety Track

There were numerous very good presentations during the Dam Safety Track. I was most intrigued by these:

The Generalized Programmatic Framework for Spillway Inspection and Potential Failure Modes Assessment program was very valuable. It described the process used and lessons learned from the many emergency spillway inspections and PFMA sessions they conducted per FERC directive to high risk dam owners. I’ve asked my staff to review the presenters’ paper and add those lessons to our own lessons learned from the 36 emergency inspections and PFMAs Mead & Hunt completed.

Doug Johnson, FERC Portland Office Division of Dam Safety and Inspections, gave an excellent presentation on lessons learned from the 183 spillway inspections he was involved in. For the most part, the spillways were in acceptable condition with only minor maintenance needed. However, 25 have significant defects that will require major maintenance.

Another favorite presentation, Proactive Thinking in Dam Safety, was particularly insightful. The presenters discussed how biases towards events we understand or have been exposed to make it difficult to envision conditions we are not readily aware of or haven’t seen before. They examined PFMAs conducted before the Oroville incident and compared them to ones done on the very same spillways after Oroville. The number of potential failure modes increased dramatically. To reduce this tendency dam safety officials and evaluators must develop tools to promote critical and creative thinking.

Eric Halpin, Chief of the HQ, USACE Dam and Levee Safety Engineering Branch, discussed Moving Towards Risk Informed Design Standards for Dams and Levees. In his presentation, Eric described the value and challenges of using a risk-based approach. Over the past 10 years, USACE conducted over 3000 risk assessments and saved over $7 billion in cost avoidance using this process.

And here are a few extra notes, you might find valuable:

  • New EM 19-13 Levee Design will include risk-informed design.
  • Risk informed design is an iterative process.
  • Every design includes a future without action risk.

Networking with dam and levee industry colleagues

In addition to the technical sessions and tracks, there was plenty of opportunity to visit with many dam and levee safety industry colleagues. I especially enjoyed seeing my friends Colonel Mike Farrell, back from Iraq to discuss the Mosul Dam project and USACE Director of Contingency Operations Ray Alexander. And of course visiting with friends from the Tulsa District USACE – Wade Anderson, Shawn Painter, David Sconyers and David Blackmore – as well as many other teaming partners and colleagues.

Finally, I had a chance to test my athletic mettle during a 5k scholarship fun run along the riverfront.

Overall it was an excellent conference and one I would highly recommend attending in the future.


Miro Kurka, PE, PMP

About the Author

Miro Kurka, P.E., PMP, knows water is an incredible resource. “I like leading teams and managing water infrastructure projects that make our citizens safer, wealthier and happier.” A retired U.S. Army officer, he managed the Corps of Engineers’ program in Tulsa, Portland and Afghanistan for 30 years. He enjoys traveling and meeting people.

Read more posts by Miro Kurka, PE, PMP

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