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Before You Buy A Dam

It is important that the prospective dam owner gather as much information as possible about an existing dam before making a decision on acquiring it. The storage of large amounts of water is a hazardous activity. It exposes the owner to tort liability.  The owner’s best and only 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.  Depending on the size of the dam and reservoir certain activities including reconstruction and lake level operations may be regulated by the State or Federal government. Legal, engineering, and other professional advice should be sought. The prospective dam owner should consider, among other things, the following:

  1. Project description: Obtain basic information on the dam, e.g., where it is, what it is, and how big it is. Types of information should include: dimensions, storage, surface area of the impoundment, type of construction, location and age.
  2. Legal Advice: Obtain competent legal advice on all aspects of acquiring and owning a dam. In general, the doctrine of strict liability is applied to dam owners.
  3. Project Records: Obtain copies of all project records that may be available. These could include construction plans and specifications, design documents, instrumentation and operating records, inspection reports, engineering studies and other pertinent materials.
  4. Initial Inspection and Evaluation: The prospective owner should engage a qualified professional engineer, registered under Vermont law, who has experience in the design and investigation of dams to inspect the dam and determine if it is in good condition. The engineer may also determine what needs to be done to bring it up to an acceptable condition, one that will allow the dam and impoundment to be used as intended and to provide adequately for public safety.  The engineer should look at the following general areas: 
    • Structural soundness: Are the dam, its foundation and abutments in good condition and stable under normal and maximum operating conditions including hydraulic loading and seepage conditions?
    • Downstream Hazard Classification: Dams are classified according to their potential for causing loss of life, property damages and other losses in the event of a failure. The current downstream hazard classification should be obtained as well as information on how and when the classification was determined. Is there an Emergency Action Plan (EAP)?
    • Hydraulic adequacy of the spillway(s): Can the spillway(s) safely and reliably pass a design flood meeting modern standards without damaging or overtopping the dam?
    • Outlet works: Is there a reliable and operational low level outlet to drain the impoundment for inspection, maintenance or project safety? Many Vermont dams were built with corrugated pipe culverts that may rust out over a period of years.
    • Maintenance: What is the state of project maintenance and what maintenance tasks have been deferred?
    • Site safety and security: Are hazards to operating personnel and site visitors minimized?
    • Seismic stability: Although there are only a few such dams in Vermont, an investigation of the dam for stability under earthquake conditions may be necessary if the dam was constructed by the hydraulic- or semi-hydraulic fill methods. In some cases foundation soils could also be a problem. Dams constructed by these methods or on certain foundations may be subject to liquefaction during strong ground motion.
  5. Real Estate and Water Rights: It is important that the dam owner obtain sufficient lands and water and other rights for construction, operation, maintenance, access, flowage and inspection of the dam. Are there any other land owners or others who have water, mill, flowage or other rights at the dam? A complete title search and boundary survey should be performed.
  6. Cost of Ownership: The dam owner should consider all of the costs of dam ownership and not just the cost of construction. Ownership costs include: 
    • Maintenance Cost: Plan for such routine expenses as mowing; clearing debris from spillways, outlet, and gates; painting and trash pickup as well as unscheduled major maintenance and repairs.
    • Operating Cost: Are seasonal or occasional gate or level operations required? Include planning for lands management costs such as boundary maintenance and oversight.
    • Inspection Cost: Inspections should be regularly scheduled and supplemented during and following major flood events. Periodic re-inspection for structural safety should be conducted by a professional engineer.
    • Replacement Cost: The remaining life of all of the project elements should be estimated and plans made to pay replacement costs.
    • Insurance Cost: Insurance for the dam and for the owner’s liability may be available. Consideration should also be given to evaluation of uninsured risks.
    • Taxes: Local property taxes should be considered.
  7. Regulatory Environment: Many aspects of dam ownership are regulated by government. Regulatory issues may include: 
    • Operational Responsibilities: Are there any permits, orders or other legal requirements for water level regulation, minimum stream flows, flood control or other activities or uses of the dam and impoundment?
    • Permits: Construction, reconstruction, alterations and other changes, including breaching or removal, may require permits from State, local or federal governments. It is important that any such permits be identified. Both construction and removal may present significant concerns.
    • Uses: How is the dam and impoundment currently used by the owner, public or others? Will the dam and impoundment serve the prospective owner’s intended uses as regulated?