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Dam Ownership and Responsibility

Dam Ownership and Responsibility

The decision to acquire and own even a small dam is a major one that will result in long-term legal and financial obligations. A careful investigation of the costs and benefits is imperative so that the prospective owner can make a well-informed decision before acquiring a dam. The storage of large amounts of water is a hazardous activity and exposes the owner to liability.  The owner’s best defense is that the owner has done all that could be expected in terms of operation, maintenance, routine inspection, and hazard mitigation including emergency action planning.

Inspections conducted by the Dam Safety Program are not intended to relieve the owner of the dam of the owner’s legal duties, obligations or liabilities incidental to the ownership, operation, maintenance, emergency preparedness or inspection of the dam. The owner should inspect or have the dam inspected on a frequent basis so that routine maintenance may be undertaken as needed and to monitor and/or identify any changes or conditions that could indicate problems with the dam. Should any such conditions or changes occur the owner should contact an engineer experienced with the design and investigation of dams. The engineer should evaluate the significance of the change or condition so that the engineer can advise the owner accordingly. Even if no changes are observed, the owner should have an experienced and qualified engineer inspect and evaluate the dam on an appropriate periodic basis, e.g., annually, biannually, etc. The inspections by the owner or owner’s engineer are independent of any inspections that may be carried out by the Department. 

Consulting Engineers 

The Vermont statute dealing with the construction, alteration and safety of dams (10 V.S.A. Chapter 43) requires that the dam owner retain the services of a registered professional engineer, licensed to practice in Vermont, "who has experience in the design and investigation of dams" to design and supervise construction or alteration of any dam requiring approval from the department. Even if a dam does not require state approval, the department recommends that engineering assistance in the design and construction of the dam be obtained so that public safety considerations are adequately addressed, and a satisfactory project is achieved. It is desirable, but not necessary, that the design engineer also provide the required construction supervision. The engineer providing construction supervision should consult with the design engineer when necessary to insure that any design changes or changed conditions meet the design intent. Some consultants will not design a dam for which they do not provide the construction supervision or vice versa.  The qualifications, experience, fees and availability of engineers may vary considerably. It is therefore important that a dam owner seek proposals from several engineers and carefully explore their qualification and experience related to dams of the type and size under consideration, as well as their fees and availability, before making a selection.   

Additional Resources

An extensive amount of information useful to dam owners, and prospective owners, is available from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO).

The Federal Emergency Management Agency also offers manuals, guides, and reports provide procedures and guidance for dam specialists and dam owners responsible for the design, construction, inspection, maintenance, and repair of dams.

Design Services and Financial Assistance

The Department does not provide site evaluations, design services or financial assistance for the new construction or alteration of dams. It is up to the owner/applicant to retain a consulting engineer. The Dam Safety Program will review the scope of engineering services (but not the fees) in a proposal if requested by the dam owner.

Limited technical assistance and funding are available for dam removal projects. The degree of assistance available is based on the ecological and public safety benefits that would result from dam removal, among other factors. Additional information on dam removal is available on the Watershed Management Division's Dam Removal page or by contacting Jeff Crocker, phone: 802-490-6151.

The Department does administer an Unsafe Dam Revolving Fund, a special fund, pursuant to adopted Rules to provide grants and loans to municipalities, nonprofit entities, and private individuals, for the reconstruction, repair, removal, breaching, draining, or other action necessary to reduce the threat of a dam or portion of a dam determined to be unsafe pursuant to section 1095 of 10 VSA Chapter 43.