The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) was founded in 1984 after a string of high-profile dam failures to aid each state in improving its dam safety regulatory program. Since then, it has helped state dam safety agencies communicate with one another and adopt best practices, conducted training, and engaged in awareness raising and legislative advocacy. In this interview, ASDSO Executive Director Lori Spragens speaks with Municipal Water Leader about the organization’s history and activities and about the prospects for increased dam safety funding on the federal and state levels.
Municipal Water Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Lori Spragens: I have been the executive director of ASDSO for about 30 years. When I was in grad school, I had an internship with a national nonprofit organization headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky, called the Council of State Governments (CSG), which conducts research to support all three branches of state government and has a number of affiliate associations. ASDSO emerged in the wake of a 1979 executive order issued by President Jimmy Carter that mandated dam safety coordination throughout federal agencies and departments. The CSG was engaged to help support the launch of the new organization. As an intern, I was assigned to help with this initiative. Eventually, ASDSO matured to the degree that it was able to move from under the umbrella of the CSG, and I chose to stay with it. In the ensuing years, we received a great deal of support from the University of Kentucky, including office space, and our headquarters have remained in Lexington, Kentucky.
Municipal Water Leader: Following the 1979 executive order, how did dam safety coordination change? What role did ASDSO play?
Lori Spragens: During the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a rash of pretty high-profile dam failures around the nation, and it became clear that many states didn’t even have state regulatory programs for dams. The federal government engaged those that did to help guide the other states in starting dam safety regulatory agencies. The early leaders first worked on establishing communication channels between the various states to provide guidance and support. The National Dam Safety Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was created at the same time, adding a base for the national coordination of federal and state agencies and eventually providing guidance documents, state assistance, and training programs to the dam safety community.
Within 15 years of the national program’s inception in 1984, every state but one had implemented a state dam safety regulatory program. Throughout its existence, ASDSO has provided significant support to the states, whose statutes and regulations are different and whose dam safety programs have different levels of staffing and funding. We serve as a facilitator, helping them to communicate with one another as well as with their federal counterparts. We also conduct extensive training and assist states with their respective legislative advocacy efforts. We can proudly point to the fact that we have grown from an organization whose members were the 50 states to one that has some 3,000 additional members from federal agencies and departments and from the private sector, including consultants, engineering firms, and dam owners and operators.
Municipal Water Leader: Are your members organizations or individuals?
Lori Spragens: It’s a mix. For example, each state dam safety program has an organizational membership. The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are both members, and many individual Reclamation and Army Corps employees are involved in our organization and its programs. Similarly, when it comes to dam owners, many dams are owned by small numbers of individuals, who could be considered individual members of our organization.
Municipal Water Leader: Is your organization funded by member dues?
Lori Spragens: Membership dues account for approximately 30 percent of our revenue stream. We also receive a significant percentage of our revenue from conferences and training programs. Dues and registration fees together represent the majority of our overall revenues. We also have several small contracts with and grants from organizations such as FEMA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that are tied to training and other activities. As a nonprofit entity, we have donors as well.
Municipal Water Leader: In addition to training, conferences, and communications work, does ASDSO engage in other activities?
Lori Spragens: We spend a lot of time focusing on public awareness. For example, we have a significant amount of information on our website, some dedicated to media interests and some oriented toward the general public. In both cases, this information revolves around understanding dams—the different types of dams, how they work, and how they can fail. Over the past couple of years, we’ve expanded our mission to another major aspect of dam safety, which is educating people about the more immediate dangers of recreating around a dam. One example of a major cause of drowning is watercraft being used by anglers drifting too close to the open gates of a dam spillway. Low-head dams, which typically have low walls that run across the width of a riverbed to slow the river flow and are generally not regulated, can create what is called a roller effect on its downstream side. The force from this rolling water can capture a person or small watercraft in a continuous circular current, leading to drowning. The alarming thing is that an increasing number of rescuers also fall victim to such structures. Many of the volunteers associated with our organization are interested in promoting public safety around dams, so we are working to raise awareness through our website and our operations. We are also engaging in outreach efforts with organizations that may share these interests, like boating and kayaking associations and those that represent first responders, and the media.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the association’s other top issues and concerns today?
Lori Spragens: We are currently spending a great deal of time in Washington, DC, advocating for the new Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dam Grant Program we and the American Society of Civil Engineers successfully pushed for over the past 3 years. Congress funded it for the first time last fiscal year, and because it is new, it has been somewhat difficult to get it up and running. FEMA, which is managing the program, has now approved a few grant applications submitted by dam owners. Now our focus is to secure additional funding for the program so that it can continue to grow and build upon its successes and to give it a few tweaks to help ensure that it runs as efficiently and effectively as possible. We’re really excited right now, because we’ve identified a couple of members of the House of Representatives and Senate who are interested in the program and its success. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has been vocal about the importance of this program, which she is trying to get fully funded. She recently circulated a letter to several of her colleagues on the subject. Right now, the program’s authorized funding level is around $40 million a year, and currently, Congress is only funding it at the $10 million level. That is what it received last fiscal year, and it appears it will be the same this time around. Senator Gillibrand is pushing hard for an increase in this funding. We’re also working closely with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who is extremely interested in this program, particularly in light of the 2017 Oroville Dam incident in California. She is a major advocate for dam safety and the national dam rehabilitation program.
Municipal Water Leader: What is your sense of the public awareness of the problems of high-hazard-potential dams?
Lori Spragens: The level of public awareness is low. Unfortunately, increasing it has been a heavy lift. When it comes to the issue of high-hazard dams, people have an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. People just don’t know that the dams near them pose hazards until something bad happens. Until then, they generally don’t even think about such infrastructure. We are trying hard to change that. The challenge is helping them understand what they are supposed to do once they have been made aware of such situations. So, we start by educating people to pay attention to warnings, emergency alerts, and evacuation orders and to be aware of where they decide to live and work. We also want to educate municipal leaders about the importance of
understanding how dams fit into their local infrastructure, their hazard mitigation planning, and their emergency action preparations. It will require both education and advocacy over the long term, but it is something we are committed to.
Municipal Water Leader: Do many municipalities struggle to fund appropriate dam safety projects?
Lori Spragens: Yes, we hear consistently from dam owners and operators that they don’t have access to funding at the level that these issues demand. Such projects can often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Lack of access to funding is a huge challenge and has not improved for several years. The new national dam rehabilitation program that I mentioned, if fully funded, could help with such needs.
Municipal Water Leader: What are the prospects for more funding for dam safety at the federal and state levels?
Lori Spragens: We hope to see this new rehab program get started and have its funding become stable or even grow. That would be a great start. We’re hoping that this funding can be distributed equally among the states on a proportional basis. Similarly, we are hopeful that as states become more aware of this issue, they will become more willing to provide similar sorts of grant funding or even loans. There are probably a dozen states that already have grant or loan programs in place. New Jersey, in particular, has a sizable low-interest loan program that is available to private dam owners. Hopefully, as awareness of funding issues grows, other states will step up to the challenge in a similar fashion.
Municipal Water Leader: What other trends do you see in dam safety today?
Lori Spragens: People talk a great deal about climate change’s potential effect on dams. That is an area that I believe needs the attention of our best engineering and meteorological experts. The hydrometeorological report maps that are in use today were developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service years ago and are likely outdated. There has been significant discussion within our organization about how new precipitation and extreme rainfall data should come into play when dams are analyzed, designed, and rehabilitated in the future.