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Louisville District Dam Safety team works hard to ensure dams are reliable

USACE - Louisville District
Published May 11, 2022
Updated: May 10, 2022

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for more than 700 dams across the United States that provide multiple benefits such as flood risk management, navigation, water supply, hydropower, environmental stewardship, fish and wildlife conservation, and recreation. Through the Dam Safety Program, USACE provides oversight for its dams and works to ensure they remain safe, reliable and able to provide their intended benefits.

Dam safety professionals carry out the dam safety program to make sure these projects deliver their intended benefits while reducing risks to people, property and the environment through continuous assessment, communication, and management. The Louisville District has a dedicated team that conducts comprehensive monitoring and inspections to keep their dams safe from failure. A dam failure — a sudden, uncontrolled release of water — can be a life threatening and destructive force, which is why the Corps of Engineers and the Louisville District strive to design, construct, maintain and operate safe dams.

To date, the Louisville District’s dams have provided more than $9 billion in flood risk reduction benefits.

The Dam Safety Program uses risk to inform how USACE manages the dams it operates and maintains, with life safety being the highest priority. This approach is a best practice adopted to evaluate, prioritize and justify dam safety decisions. Using risk information allows USACE to repair its dams in the most effective manner within a constrained budget.

Louisville District’s Dam Safety Program Manager, Jackie Rowe, has worked in dam safety for 20 years and is responsible for all funding and budget requests, assigning all annual dam safety tasks, and reviewing final documents before submission to the district’s regional division office. 

“The most challenging part of this program is the coordination with so many different groups, some internal at the Corps and some external,” said Rowe. “We work with all engineering disciplines to complete inspections at each project. We work with the Risk Management Center to ensure all project risks are understood and properly managed. We work with the Mapping and Modeling Center to get up to date flood inundation mapping for our projects. We work with the operations project staff or each flood risk management and navigation project.”

The team also works with emergency managers downstream of each project to ensure they are aware of the risks and have evacuation protocols in place. 

“It is difficult to manage all of these relationships, but having a great dam safety team definitely helps,” said Rowe.

During routine dam safety activities, such as inspections or risk assessments, USACE examines its dams and identifies any possible issues. If an issue is identified during these routine activities, the dam safety team completes an issue evaluation study which provides a better understanding of how that issue may affect the dam’s performance. These studies are often followed by a dam safety modification study, which answers the question of how the issue with the dam should be addressed.

“One of the biggest things I am seeing in the dam safety program is our aging infrastructure,” said Kate Brandner, Louisville District Dam Safety Section chief. “The projects are performing remarkably well, no small part to the amazing staff at each of the projects, but as the projects age issues start arising.”

Examples of such issues include service gates needing repair, riprap needing to be overlain to prevent damage to the embankment and equipment going bad and needing to be replaced. 

“The resources needed to complete repairs are limited, and we have to prioritize funding to best address any risk associated with delaying repair,” said Brandner. “Institutional knowledge is one of the hard to quantify resources that we have utilized to overcome issues; knowledge about what repair efforts work best or figuring out a best path forward. This knowledge comes from both within dam safety section and the staff at the project. They have a lot more intimate experience with the projects and can provide context that those of us in the office often lack.”
Brandner has worked in dam safety since 2016, and in her current role, provides the rest of the team the resources they need to ensure the program is successful.

Kyle Murray, Louisville District Dam Safety coordinator for the Middle Wabash basin, is also a part of the team. Murray monitors and reviews instrumentation data for each dam in his area, which can provide indication of developing flaws within the dam structure.  Annual and periodic inspections are also tasks performed by coordinators to ensure the dams are functioning as intended. 

The program’s coordinators are also responsible for Emergency Actions Plans (EAP), any risk reduction measures depending on the safety rating of the dam, and are considered the expert when it comes to dam safety relating to each project, according to Murray. 

“What makes this program different, and challenging, is most of what you do are outside of view,” said Murray. “In order for the program to function, it relies on other disciplines outside of dam safety such as structures and water resources groups.”

Although it can be challenging at times, Murray says the hands-on aspect of his job is the best part. 

“The work that gets done has a direct impact on the community with the overall flood mitigation aspect,” said Murray. “The annual and periodic inspection are also great because you go out to the various projects and get your boots dirty.”  

Scott Kelly is the dam safety coordinator for the Green River Basin, and he enjoys the opportunity to work with different disciplines. 

“The inspection team consists of structural, electrical, mechanical, geotechnical, and hydraulic teammates, which requires coordination and frequent communication,” said Kelly. “I enjoy going to the projects and talking with the lake manager and operations staff. I learn something new almost every trip. I gain a better understanding of operations which helps me to be a better coordinator.”

Dams are a key part of USACE’s flood risk management solutions and there is no doubt how hard the dam safety teams work to reduce risks to local communities.

“Our great team is the reason why Louisville District consistently meets dam safety operation and maintenance requirements and is highly regarded within, not just the region, but the entire USACE,” said Kelly.

In addition to Rowe, Brandner, Murray and Kelly, the Louisville District Dam Safety team also includes John Bock, Engineering Division chief and Dam Safety Officer; Roger Olsen, Upper Kentucky coordinator; Bob Anderson, Miami River Basin coordinator; Jim Kelly, navigation coordinator; and Duane Pfouts, instrumentation manager. 

Flooding can occur near dams in a variety of scenarios. USACE shares information to increase awareness about its dams and possible flooding, so stakeholders and the public can manage how they prepare for and respond to a flood event. The National Inventory of Dams is a great online resource to find out where dams are, what they were designed to do, and who manages them. Learn more by visiting: