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Dam Ownership in the United States

This section of the site contains information on dam ownership and how the owners are responsible for the safety and the liability of the dam and for financing its upkeep, upgrade and repair.

Although most infrastructure facilities, such as roads, bridges and sewer systems are owned by public entities, the majority of dams in the United States are privately owned. In general, very large dams are owned and regulated by the federal government.

 Pie Chart showing the breakdown of dam ownership including Private (56.4%), Local (20.1%), undetermined (11.6%), Federal (4.7%), State (4.8%), Public Utility (2.4%). Source - National Inventory of Dams, February 2005.

Given the diffuse nature of dam ownership versus regulation in the United States, it is apparent that dam safety and security are often not solely a federal, state or local issue.

The safety and security of a dam can affect persons and property across local, state and even national borders. An incident in one area can affect commerce, navigation and power generation and distribution or it can cause severe damage in another area. As a result, there is a reasonable federal role to coordinate federal, state and local efforts to provide dam safety and security to citizens.

To encourage individual and community responsibility for dam safety, FEMA coordinates partnerships through two federal organizations. Visit National Dam Safety Program Partners for more information.

A guide, Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments (FEMA P-911), was developed as a quick reference to help dam owners and others assess low hazard dams and impoundments. Uncontrolled release of a reservoir resulting from a dam failure can have a devastating effect on people and property downstream. Safely maintaining a dam is a key element in preventing dam failure and limiting the liability a dam owner could face.

Accessing and using resources and guidance on dam safety is key to successful dam ownership. Safety Tips for Dam Owners was developed to introduce important concepts dam owners should be aware of and provide access to more detailed information.

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Last Updated: 
10/22/2019 - 09:58