Municipal Water Leader
Interview

FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program

Many of the nation’s large, federally owned hydropower dams are aging and in need of repairs, which are often funded by agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation. However, such funding streams are often not open to smaller, state-regulated private and municipal dams. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is helping address this gap through its National Dam Safety Program (NDSP), which provides pass-through grants to states, which in turn award the money to subrecipients who sponsor rehabilitation projects. In this interview, James Demby, the senior technical and policy adviser on dam safety issues and program manager for the NDSP, tells Municipal Water Leader about the projects that the program funds and how states can best apply for grant funding. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position. 

James Demby: I have more than 30 years of experience in the area of dam safety. I started working on civil works projects and military construction projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where I spent about 14 years. I then went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Forest Service, where I was the dam safety program manager. I was there for about 4 years. In 2007, I came to FEMA in the same position I now hold. 

Municipal Water Leader: Would you give us a quick introduction to the NDSP? 

James Demby: The NDSP is a public-private partnership whose purpose is to reduce risk and reduce dam failure in the United States. The establishment and maintenance of an effective dam safety program brings together the expertise of federal and nonfederal resources and subject-matter experts. The goal is to achieve national dam safety hazard reduction. 

The program had its genesis in the 1970s, when a series of dam failures occurred under the Carter administration. An ad hoc group was created to look at concerns about dams and to establish federal dam safety guidelines. That group’s guidelines were established in 1979 and provided the framework for federal dam safety programs. In 1996, the NDSP was codified in statute. 

The NDSP provides financial assistance in the form of grants to states that have legislated dam safety programs. It also provides training for state dam safety professionals and other dam safety professionals. We also have a research program that develops tools to support state and federal agencies in their dam safety activities. We promote public outreach activities. It’s a modest program, but it benefits the profession. 

There are two advisory committees under the NDSP. One is the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety, which brings together the federal agencies that have some role or responsibility related to dam design, building, regulation, or operations and maintenance. There’s also the National Dam Safety Review Board, which is made up of federal and state members and private-sector representatives. Both of those committees are chaired by FEMA. 

Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about the Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams (HHPD) grant program and the sorts of projects it typically funds. 

James Demby: Congress authorized the HHPD grant program under FEMA to fund the technical planning, design, and construction of eligible high-hazard-potential dams. This program was authorized in December 2016 under the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. In fiscal year 2019, Congress appropriated $10 million for rehabilitation. The grant program provides those funds to states based on a formula that factors in the number of states that submit applications and the number of eligible high-hazard-potential dams. That formula produces a wide range of possible outcomes, but the amount of money any one state can receive is capped at 12.5 percent of the total funds available. With $10 million available, that’s $1.25 million. The minimum depends on how the formula works out. In 2020, the smallest amount was $170,000. 

A range of dam rehabilitation activities can receive funds, including site investigations, geotechnical investigations, risk assessments, and design and construction activities. 

Municipal Water Leader: Are the grantees always the states themselves? 

James Demby: The HHPD grants are set up as pass-through grants, so the states are the recipients. There is a two-phase application process. The states submit grant applications that include basic information about their eligible dams. Based on those applications and the formula I discussed above, a determination is made regarding how much money each state receives. Then the states need to submit a revised work plan that reflects the actual funding they are receiving, detailing what they plan on doing with the grant funds and which subrecipients and projects the funds will be given to. Each subrecipient has to be eligible, the dam that is going to be worked on has to be eligible, and the activities that it wants to fund have to be eligible. 

Municipal Water Leader: Who generally owns the high-hazard-potential dams in question? Are they owned by the states, by municipalities, or by private entities? 

James Demby: There is a range. However, according to the statute, the subrecipient of a high-hazard-potential dam grant must be a nonfederal sponsor, such as a nonfederal government organization or a nonprofit organization. That entity will sponsor the rehabilitation of a dam. For example, if a privately owned high-hazard-potential dam threatens a municipality, the municipality can be a subrecipient of a grant and then sponsor the rehabilitation of that project, but the private dam owner cannot be a recipient. 

The dam in question also has to be eligible. For a dam to be eligible, it must be a high-hazard-potential dam, it must be regulated by a state, it must have an state-approved emergency action plan in place, and it must fail to meet the minimum state dam safety criteria and pose an unacceptable risk to the public. 

Some projects will not be eligible for HHPD grants. Those include federal projects, projects that have a hydropower license through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and projects that were built under the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Municipal Water Leader: What are the typical sorts of projects that HHPD grants support? 

James Demby: It really depends. In the first year of the grants and in fiscal year 2019, we did not allow actual construction projects. A lot of the states didn’t have projects ready. A lot of states put the grants toward risk assessments. Some states funded design and certification work. Risk assessments and site investigations seemed to be the prevailing types of projects for fiscal year 2019. 

Municipal Water Leader: How can a state apply successfully for an HHPD grant, and how can another entity, such as a municipality, successfully promote its project to a state? 

James Demby: One of the requirements for a state is to have an administrative plan or grant management plan that explains how it is going to implement the pass-through grants. The state needs to have a process in place through which subrecipients can apply for rehabilitation grants and the state can make subawards to those projects. 

Municipal Water Leader: What is your vision for the future of the program, and where do you see it going in future years? 

James Demby: There is a need across the country for the rehabilitation of high-hazard-potential dams. As long as this program receives congressional appropriations, FEMA will continue to move forward with the HHPD grant program. We will improve our outreach and provide more training and materials to get the states better positioned to take advantage of this opportunity. 

James Demby is the senior technical and policy adviser on dam safety issues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the program manager for the National Dam Safety Program.