Description & Background


Sandbag weirs are often constructed to measure seepage amounts, allowing dam operators to accurately monitor conditions.

When a dam develops a defect, it often takes very little time before that defect evolves into a full-scale failure mechanism and threatens complete breaching of the dam structure. However, if dam owners are knowledgeable about intervention strategies and take appropriate emergency action, a catastrophic breach can often be avoided. For this reason, severity of the situation and decisions about remedial strategies should be evaluated thoroughly, yet quickly after learning about the potential failure. There are five essential steps involved in emergency reaction to a dam crisis: (1) Preparation, (2) Assessment, (3) Monitoring, (4) Response, and (5) Post-Action Documentation and Follow-Up.

One of the most important actions to successfully intervene during the failure of a dam is to plan and prepare for various potential failure modes before warning signs are even observed. Time is usually of the essence during a dam failure emergency, and planning ahead is the best way to expedite the dam repair procedure. Every dam owner should include detailed instructions on how to initiate such intervention processes in their Emergency Action Plan, in addition to relevant documents like as-built drawings, operation and maintenance manuals, and inspection reports. It is also good practice to contact local contractors that may possess heavy machinery or necessary equipment beforehand and communicate what services may potentially be required of them in the event of a dam failure. This will make quick response possible and limits the number of miscommunications that will happen in the heat of the dam emergency moment. Stockpiling gravel, sand, and other remedial materials on-site can be another important step to minimizing the time between identification of the problem and beginning to work on a solution. This allows materials to be applied directly to the dam when needed and eliminates the possibility of not being able to obtain the needed resources in time to fix the problem.

Once a problem is identified at a dam site, it must be thoroughly assessed to determine exactly what type of crisis the dam owner is working with. The mode of failure, progression of the defect, and potential threats to public safety are all questions that must be answered quickly and accurately. Correct procedures outlined in the Emergency Action Plan should then be followed accordingly. An efficient chain-of-command should be established, and the appropriate parties and authorities should be notified of the situation. This includes informing those in areas of potential hazard downstream of the dam. Procedures for alerting and/or evacuating downstream areas should be outlined in the Emergency Action Plan.  It is also crucial to establish baseline conditions of the failure mode, as well as a way to measure their progression on a regular basis. Marking levels where sloughing occurs, installing weirs to measure seepage, and collecting readings from observation wells are examples of monitoring conditions for various failure modes.

A protocol for regularly monitoring conditions at the dam should subsequently be established and the results documented. Visual, in-person inspection is typically most effective as it provides a mental picture for future reference, and the person can get a “feel” for how serious the problem really is. Good descriptions, data recordings, and photos should be taken and kept for analysis.  Each person on site should be thoroughly briefed and updated on any changing conditions. Ideally, conditions will be observed to be steady or improving. If this is the case, repair oriented actions should be taken to try to fix the problem before it develops. Time is not as crucial of a resource in this instance. However, if conditions are noticed as becoming worse, emergency intervention options should be analyzed and implemented as soon as possible. Continuous, in-person monitoring should also be implemented in these situations. If the situation becomes too dangerous, monitoring protocol should be altered to keep personnel in safe conditions. If efforts continue overnight, ensure there is adequate lighting on the dam structure to enable continued monitoring and keep workers safe.

Depending on the condition of the dam determined through monitoring, an appropriate response should be chosen and enacted. When considering what response to make to the emergency, public safety should be the number one concern, followed by downstream property and lastly, the dam itself. Typically, the best action for each of these three concerns will be the same response, but it is important to remember that protection of human life is always the number one concern. Sometimes damaging the dam structure will be the safest response, as in the case of a controlled breach. Regulatory and resource agencies should be contacted and notified regarding the situation. As mentioned before, if downstream populations are at all in possible danger, evacuation efforts should be initiated. In almost all cases, reservoir drawdown processes should be commenced as soon as possible to try to relieve the hydraulic loads acting on the dam. If the condition of the dam is judged to be significantly deteriorating, emergency actions should be taken. This is when having various tools and materials set aside becomes very valuable. Actions such as using sandbags to increase freeboard and prevent overtopping, using riprap to prevent erosion to the dam structure, or applying a geotextile filter fabric to combat piping are all examples of emergency intervention techniques that can be used to try to save a dam from a total failure. In some instances, a dam incident will have progressed too far to realistically expect an emergency intervention to successfully prevent failure until it is noticed. Cases such as this warrant that actions be taken to delay a breach as long as possible, in order to provide as much time as possible for emergency procedures and evacuation to be enacted downstream. Being familiar with the various intervention techniques prior to a dam emergency facilitates an appropriate and timely response.  It is also important to ensure that any intervention actions will “do no harm”, as some actions could accelerate failure of the dam.

After the emergency situation has been resolved, documentation of the situation and actions taken should be developed as soon as possible. This should contain the conditions observed and any responses made throughout the entire emergency timeline. It should also be as descriptive as possible, and contain pictures, sketches, and any relevant measurements or data taken. The report should also recommend any further actions, if deemed necessary. These could include inspections or further repair of the structure. Copies of this report should be provided to the dam owner as well as all relevant dam safety agency personnel.


(1) Cox, C.W., Leone, D.M. (2006). Dam Emergency Response Suggestions for a Dam Safety Engineer’s Toolkit and Checklist. ASDSO Annual Conference. Boston: Association of State Dam Safety Officials.

(2) FEMA. (2005). FEMA Dam Failure Seminar. Training Aids for Dam Safety – Evaluation of Seepage Conditions.






Case Studies

El Guapo Dam (Venezuela, 1999)

Construction of El Guapo Dam began in 1975 and was completed in 1980. The dam is 197 feet tall and stores 114,000 acre-feet of drinking and irrigation water for the Barlovento Region in the state of Miranda, Venezuela. Because bedrock is deep...

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Fontenelle Dam (Wyoming, 1965)

Fontenelle Dam is located on the Green River near La Barge, Wyoming and was originally built in 1964 to provide irrigation water and hydropower for a region of southwest Wyoming. The earthfill embankment structure...

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Fort Peck Dam (Montana, 1938)

Beginning at about 1:15 pm on September 22, 1938, the upstream slope of the dam adjacent to the right abutment experienced a large failure as the construction work had progressed to within 20 feet of the final dam crest elevation. One hundred eighty men were working in the area.

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Front Range Flood (Colorado, 2013)

The September 2013 rainfall that occurred on the Front Range of Colorado was the result of an unusual, late season storm event where warm moisture and upslope winds allowed this regional storm to dump up to 17 inches of rain over a seven day period.

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Guajataca Dam (Puerto Rico, 2017)

Guajataca Dam is a 121 ft high, 1,037 ft long, high hazard potential earthen embankment structure constructed using semi-hydraulic fill methods for the central core (i.e., “puddle” core) and rolled and compacted outer shells composed of a mixture of clayey soils, gravel, and cobbles.

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Hebgen Dam (Montana, 1959)

Just before midnight on August 17th 1959 in southwest Montana, in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, a Mw 7.3 earthquake caused an estimated 36 to 43 million cubic yard rockslide to rapidly cross the Madison River and continue up the opposite canyon...

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Lawn Lake Dam (Colorado, 1982)

Lawn Lake Dam was located in Rocky Mountain National Park upstream of Estes Park, Colorado. It was an embankment dam and constructed in 1903 and owned by an irrigation company.  It fell within the National Park Boundary...

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Little Deer Creek (Utah, 1963)

Little Deer Creek Dam and Reservoir were conceived as part of the Kamas Water Project and were owned by the South Kamas – Washington Irrigation Company. The dam was designed by the Utah Water and Power Board that also oversaw construction.

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Maple Grove Dam (Colorado, 1979)

In an effort to increase water storage capacity and provide flood protection to the surrounding communities of Lakewood, Colorado, two inflatable Fabridams were added to the crest of Maple Grove Reservoir and spillway in 1977. Shortly before midnight...

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Marshall Lake Dam (Colorado)

Routine inspections of Marshall Lake Dam in the early 21st century were relatively uneventful. The 75-foot-tall, 2,400-foot-long high hazard earth embankment dam had relatively flat slopes...

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Best Practices

Filters for Embankment Dams: Best Practices for Design and Construction

Author: Federal Emergency Management Agency
Date Published: 2011

Training Aids for Dam Safety: Evaluation of Seepage Conditions

Author: Interagency Committee on Dam Safety
Date Published: 1990

Evaluation and Monitoring of Seepage and Internal Erosion

Author: Interagency Committee on Dam Safety
Date Published: 2015

Dam Owner Emergency Intervention Toolbox

Author: Montana Department of Natural, Federal Emergency Management Agency & Gannett Fleming
Date Published: July 2016

Other Resources

Sinkholes: The Hole Story

Author: AECOM

Western Dam Engineering Technical Note

Dam Emergency Response - Suggestions for a Dam Safety Engineer's Toolkit and Checklist

Author: C. Cox and D. Leone

Technical Paper published by Association of State Dam Safety Officials

Evaluation of Seepage Conditions

Author: Interagency Committee on Dam Safety

Training Aids for Dam Safety Module

Will You Be Able to Access Your Dam During Emergencies?

Author: J. Racicot & D. Lord

Technical Paper

Seepage and Piping Toolbox - Continuation, Progression, Intervention and Breach

Author: M. Foster, R. Fell, N. Vroman, J. Cyganiewicz, G. Sills, & R. Davidson

Technical Paper published by United State Society on Dams

Engineering Measures for Landslide Disaster Mitigation

Author: M. Popescu & K. Sasahara

Technical Paper

Guidelines for Use of Pumps and Siphons for Emergency Reservoir Drawdown

Author: Morrison Maierle, Inc.

Guidelines published by Morrison Maierle, Inc.

Sandbagging Techniques

Author: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Brochure published by USACE

Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments

Author: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Instructional guide

Wet Breaching Dams - Emergency and Non-Emergency Situations

Author: W. Self

Technical Paper published by the U.S. Forest Service