TVA Dam Safety

For TVA, dam safety is a leading priority 24/7/365. Read about what we’re doing every day to monitor and improve the 49 dams in the Tennessee River system.

National Dam Safety Awareness Day is observed every year on May 31. The date marks the worst dam failure disaster in U.S. history: the 1889 failure of South Fork Dam in Johnstown, Pa., which claimed more than 2,200 lives.

But dam safety awareness is top of mind every day at TVA. While dam safety has improved tremendously since then, events in recent years have demonstrated the importance of dam safety. For example, the 2017 evacuation of 200,000 people near Oroville Dam in California reminded us that while dams are beneficial, they can be dangerous if they fail.

Dam Safety directly impacts TVA’s mission by supporting energy, the environment and economic growth. TVA’s 49 river dams in the Tennessee River system benefit the Valley by providing navigation, flood control, power generation, water supply, recreation and water quality. As a national leader in dam safety, TVA works round the clock to provide these benefits, reduce risks and protect lives and property.

Dam Health Checks

“At TVA, every day is a dam safety awareness day,” says Jennifer Dodd, general manager of Dam Safety. “Every TVA dam is checked regularly to make sure that it is operating as intended.

“Because many of these dams were built in the 1930s, TVA works diligently to make sure that they meet modern safety regulations to stand up to the biggest flood or earthquake that we would ever expect to see in the Tennessee Valley.”

TVA has a long history of safe operations of its dams and ongoing dam safety projects, continuously checking its dams and making improvements. In recent years, visitors to TVA dams have seen large pieces of equipment, barges and cranes nearby as TVA conducts geotechnical evaluations and studies as part of an ongoing “health check” of all 49 dams in the TVA system.

The health checks are part of a continuous improvement campaign to make sure TVA’s dams meet today’s stringent industry safety standards and federal design, operation, maintenance and repair guidelines. TVA has completed an initial round of health checks at all 49 dams, with further evaluation and assessments to follow.

Extreme Makeovers

Dodd said the health checks also help identify some dams that would benefit from upgrades to make them even better able to withstand extreme events. For example, a 2014 analysis at Pickwick Landing showed that, in a large seismic event, the dam’s south embankment has the potential for damage. TVA’s Dam Safety team took immediate action to mitigate the risks to the public downstream, including installation of a seismic early warning system.

Major TVA Dam Safety projects recently include:

  • Conducting work to help Pickwick Landing Dam withstand a major seismic event, including upgrades to both the upstream and downstream sides of the dam’s south earthen embankment. Construction of the upgrades is scheduled for completion in late 2021.
  • Construction in 2018 of a 400-feet long, 10-feet high berm of sand, gravel and rip-rap to help Kentucky Dam withstand extreme seismic events that are unlikely to happen but could have devastating consequences if they did occur.
  • Continued progress to repair seepage discovered in October 2014 near the base of the earthen embankment at Boone Dam. TVA completed the environmental assessment review and initial grouting test phase (low mobility grouting) in 2016, and the second phase of the grouting program (high mobility grouting) in 2018. After continuing monitoring and assessment, TVA refined the repair plan and moved ahead with some project activities, such as completion of a planned rock and sand berm in 2018 earlier than initially scheduled. The project remains on schedule for completion by 2022, within the initial 5-7 years estimate.
  • Completion in 2018 of a new 7-foot high concrete flood wall at TVA’s Fort Loudoun Dam, the last in a series of major construction projects at five TVA dams to protect Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear plants in a worst-case flood scenario. The wall is 1,200 feet long, crests at 837 feet above sea level, and is four feet higher than the old wall it replaces. The Fort Loudoun work also included construction of a 1,400-foot long Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) section of the dam’s south embankment and post-tension anchors and steel bar reinforcement of other parts of the dam.

Shared Responsibility

TVA is a national leader in dam safety and regularly hosts or participates in regional and national conferences presented by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the Center for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation (CEATI), the U.S. Society on Dams (USSD) and other leading organizations related to dam safety.

While TVA does its part year round, Dodd says Dam Safety Awareness Day is a good time for everyone, especially residents of communities near large dams, to renew their focus on dam safety. The goal is to encourage and promote individual and community responsibility for dam safety, as well as to provide information on what steps can be taken to prevent future catastrophic dam failures.

For example, having an emergency action plan can potentially prevent loss of life. Know what to do when you have to evacuate, including contacting your local emergency management official.

“Dam safety is a shared responsibility,” says Dodd. “Take time to inform your friends and neighbors about dams in the area and to contact your local dam safety official for more information.”

To learn more about the National Dam Safety Program, visit FEMA’s National Dam Safety page, which provides information to the public on actions you can take to reduce your risk.

Know the Risks

People who live near a dam should learn the risks associated with that and take the appropriate safety steps, including the following:

  • Know your risk—contact your local emergency management agency or state dam safety official
  • Know your role—have an emergency preparedness plan for you and your family and practice it
  • Know your evacuation route—and talk to your neighbors about dam safety

Also make sure you know and avoid the dangers of being in the water near dams, locks and powerhouses. If you like fishing or enjoy swimming and boating on TVA-managed reservoirs, you need to be aware of the possible hazards surrounding dams. A large amount of water can be discharged through a dam’s spillway or through powerhouse turbines without warning at any time.

For example, when the demand for electricity is high, the turbines that generate electricity at a hydro plant may start automatically, resulting in a significant increase in the flow of water within only a matter of seconds. Similarly, river operations for flood control can create rapidly rising water in otherwise shallow riverbeds, especially below tributary dams, which are usually located in steep terrain.

Even if you’re an experienced boater, angler or swimmer, it pays to know the signs of rising water and the rules you should follow to ensure your safety.

TVA has installed horns, strobe lights, warning signs and electronic spillway signs with strobe lights and horns at several Valley dams to warn the public of impending changes in water conditions, such as swirling water, strong surface and underwater currents, rapidly rising water and sudden water surges. In addition, warning signs and danger buoys near some dams identify hazardous areas ahead. Access to these areas is restricted at all times.

To ensure your safety, please obey TVA's warning devices. Click here for more information about steering clear of dam dangers.