SAVANNAH, Ga. – Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, traveled to the dams at Richard B. Russell and J. Strom Thurmond Lakes to provide mandatory dam safety training Feb. 1-2, 2023.
The training instructors included personnel from engineering, water management, and emergency management. Attendees included mechanics, electricians, managers, specialists, park rangers, and ground maintenance contractors, which were important to be included in the training as they are in the field daily and would likely be the first people to notice any changes at the dam.
Each day provided training on a wide variety of topics, including how to identify potential deficiencies with the embankments, such as seepage, cracking, or settlement; identify potential deficiencies with concrete dams, such as cracking or monolith movement; the purpose of the dam’s instrumentation; general lake management information including releases from the dam; and emergency preparedness information, which reviewed the dam’s emergency action plan and flood-fighting techniques.
“The most important message that this training conveys is how to identify the first warning signs of an issue with the District’s dams,” said Lucia Wimberly, the Savannah District dam safety program manager. “Project personnel are at the dams everyday while District engineers only visit a couple times throughout the year. This training makes it critical the project employees know what to look for and can contact the District engineers if an issue is observed.”
Occasional impromptu and engaged discussions occurred during the training to talk about various aspects of the operations of the dams and the differences from their own dam in relation to others. Such discussions led to useful exchanges of information to help further improve maintenance and operations of the dams, as well as highlighting certain aspects that needed improving or revising.
"I think the training went well overall,” said Steven Taylor, structural engineer. “During the breaks, we had great conversations as a group and individually with the dam personnel. I was hoping to help them understand why we need such monitoring systems to help prevent catastrophic failures of the concrete dam and spillway, and they have a passionate response about the work they perform to maintain both safe working conditions and a healthy dam. Their input is valuable and we should always consider the immense experience and background the dam personnel possess when working to repair minor issues within the dam."
At the conclusion of the slideshow portions of each training, Mary Lawson, emergency management specialist, led a demonstration with the attendees at a nearby site to show how to properly fill, distribute, and place sandbags to create a boil sack ring. Each dam has an allocated number of sandbags in case of a flooding emergency.
“My expectations included raising awareness among USACE employees working around dams about the potential issues they may observe and helping them understand ways to address these issues,” said Lawson. “These expectations were met – it was great to see their enthusiasm during the construction of the boil sack ring. They had great questions that showed the training got them thinking about things they otherwise may not have been aware of.”
Water management is also a crucial element for dam safety which the objective of balancing the pools at Hartwell and Thurmond at specific levels depending on the time of the year. The Savannah River Basin recently concluded drought operations that lasted nearly four months after those pool levels went below the designated drought trigger level one.
"Water management and dam safety are closely tied," said Stan Simpson, the Savannah District Water manager. "Lucia, the dam safety manager, and I typically have training at our projects every few years to keep our team proficient. We also attend dam safety training and exercises with our upstream and downstream partners, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, annually. Although we train often, as the water manager, I must take into account all of the conditions that may endanger people’s lives daily."
States regulate 70 percent of all dams in the country and every state has a Dam Safety Program, with the exception of Alabama. The program includes periodic inspections, embankment and concrete dam instrumentation, risk assessments every ten years, emergency tabletop exercises every five years, and dam safety training. Each dam is required to perform a minimum of six hours of this training every five years.
A series of five dam breaks across the country between 1972 and 1977 resulted in the deaths of more than 450 people and caused more than two billion dollars of property damage. In direct response to these disasters, President Jimmy Carter implemented the Phase I Inspection Program in 1978 which directed the Corps to inspect the nation’s non-federal high hazard dams. This resulted in the creation of the National Dam Safety Programs in most states, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency assumed administration of in 1996.