Dam Safety Day Reminds Us of Benefits, Responsibilities of Dam Ownership

Kentucky has an abundance of natural water resources that provide opportunities for residents from recreation to providing drinking water. You can’t drive far in the state without coming across one of Kentucky’s abundant natural water resources.

On top of  90,000 miles of rivers and streams here, there are more than 1,000 dams that serve many purposes for the citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky.

The Kentucky Division of Water has the job of managing, protecting and upgrading the quality of the commonwealth’s water resources, and as part of that mission the Division of Water’s Dam Safety Program oversees more than 950 dams in the program.

Dams have several benefits. They provide pools that provide drinking water, are used for flood control, recreation, wildlife habitat and power generation.

But they also pose risks.

When a body of water is pooled by creating a dam, there is an inherent risk involved for  infrastructure, people or property who may be in the flood path of that water if the dam isn’t properly maintained.  While dam failures are rare, they do happen. And without proper risk management, the consequences of a dam failure, however unlikely, can be devestating.

Most dams aren’t owned by the government, but do fall under government regulatory authority. That means private dam owners are responsible for maintenance, repairs and ensuring the public, property and infrastructure that may be associated with their dam all remains safe. Dam rehabilitation projects commonly range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per dam; costs that may place a huge burden on dam owners, highlighting the need for proper dam maintenance and upkeep.

Division of Water Dam Safety and Floodplain Compliance staff periodically inspect regulated dams; approximately 300 dams each year.  If deficiencies are found, dam owners are required to correct them in close coordination with the Division.  Where deficiencies remain, enforcement action is sometimes required to ensure proper safety requirements, maintenance, or modification.

Kentucky does own some dams. The Division of Water manages the State-owned Dam Repair Program.

Kentucky’s budget sets out funding to manage, plan, and execute projects to upgrade and rehabilitate dams owned by state agencies.   Past projects include:

  • Guist Creek Lake Dam – Shelby County
  • Greenbo Lake Dam – Greenup County
  • Kincaid Creek Dam – Pendleton County
  • Lake Beshear – Caldwell County
  • Lake McNeeley – Jefferson County

The  Dam Safety program currently has two active repair projects under way.

  • Scenic Lake Dam at John J. Audubon State Park – Henderson County. Phase I – The project will stabilize and strengthen the dam’s foundation to protect against failure due to earthquakes.  Phase II – The existing spillway will be replaced to provide capacity to pass the design flood (approximately 28 inches of rain in 6 hours).
  • Bullock Pen – Boone/Grant Counties.  The dam’s spillway will be replaced so that the dam can pass the design flood.

Dams provide opportunities and benefits for most of the residents of the commonwealth. While they can pose risks, they can also be economic drivers, provide recreational and infrastructure opportunities and create some of the most scenic landscapes in the country.