Dam Safety, Evolution of a Program


[Music] In the spring of 1976, Teton Dam, an earthen dam just north of Rexburg, Idaho was the site of the most significant failure of a Bureau of Reclamation project in the agency’s history. The failure of Teton Dam would serve as the catalyst for Reclamation’s Dam Safety Program. The pioneers of the Dam Safety Program had a transformative effect on Reclamation. Through rigorous peer review, proactive engineering standards and cutting edge risk management analysis, the Dam Safety Office and Reclamation’s facility managers have regained the confidence of the American public. For decades, Reclamation’s Dam Safety Office has stood out internationally as a leader in its field. However, prior to the failure of Teton,
Reclamation had already begun looking at our facilities in a different light. New advances in hydrology, meteorology and geotechnical science showed that dams were much more complex than what they appeared to be on the surface. So, for Reclamation employees, what are the lessons of Teton Dam? How do those lessons resonate today? And what could prevent this from happening again? [Music] Long before Teton, Reclamation had established a worldwide reputation. Bret Carter: The Bureau really it was at the top of the heap, dam builders worldwide, we had all kinds of manuals out there, our engineers, and geologist went all over the world helping other patients. Pete Aberle: No matter what engineering company you go into, there is the bureau manuals on the shelf right at the top. And I mean all of them. Craig Albertson: Reclamation’s record is second to none. We have a very strong construction record. Dave Achterberg: There was also a lot of pride, honestly, in that Reclamation was able to do all of this, and they never had a dam failure. Bruce Muller: Reclamation was hanging its hat on the success of its past experiences and focused on; “let’s keep moving, let’s keep producing, we’ve got a schedule to keep in order to get this spec out the door.” Neil Stessman: Reclamation had, I would say,
a tremendous reputation as an engineering operation and maintenance agency, but when the dam failed a very large number of people were impacted adversely. Larry Von Thun: And the bureau’s response to the failure of Teton dam, the global response was the development of a “cracker jack” dam safety program. Brent Carter: It probably made us a better organization. Neil Stessman: I think it was a catalyst for change. [Music] The dam’s failure triggered an immediate investigation by Reclamation, Congress, two independent review panels and others. The Federal government was under pressure brought on by those harmed, the public and the press to find a cause for the catastrophe. The investigations at all levels proved invaluable. Using design and construction records, forensics techniques at the site, and other methods, the technical review teams attempted to pinpoint the exact mechanism of the failure. They revealed a probable cause and through their recommendations established the groundwork for future change. But left exposed were more internalized and deep-rooted causes for the failure that affected the agency’s performance. Based on past successes, Reclamation had developed a pattern of insular decision-making, and centralized processes. Critics say these originated at the design office
in Denver and flowed downward into the organization. Brent Carter: Reclamation was good, it was very good, but all of a sudden we had pride. We had tremendous pride, and tremendous pride and ego can be very destructive. Neil Stessman: It was very hierarchical. The project Construction Engineer had a tremendous amount of authority right there on the project. Larry Von Thun: The Chief Engineer here in Denver was king as far as design, and the Construction Engineer in the field was king as far as construction. Bret Carter: And there was very little communication between staffs, especially design engineers and your construction engineers or field engineers, they weren’t encouraged to cross pollinate. Jim Mumford: There wasn’t a lot of interplay between the branches. It was a very closed system, essentially, that went on. And they were on the 12th floor. They were right below us. The guys who designed Teton, I knew because I saw them on the elevators. Bruce Muller: When I first came to work for the Bureau of Reclamation, in order to have conversations with field personnel, we actually had to fill out a request to be able to send a facsimile. We had to do reports of telephone calls. We had to have permission to make a long distance call. It was very tightly controlled, how much communication there was between the designers and the field personnel. Pete Aberle: Before Teton, like I told you, you didn’t call Denver unless they called you, and the Construction Engineer called Denver when he really needed something. Outside of that you had the specifications, and you were expect… that was your bible, and expected to follow it, and all the answers were in the specifications and their drawings. Neil Stessman: They were kind of the prince of their own little fiefdom there. And that carried out throughout the organization. People understood that the project construction engineers and other top level people in the organization tended to be in the stovepipe of project construction within the Bureau of Reclamation. Neil Parrett: Going back to Teton, the fact that the region had identified four particular features of the site that would be critical to the performance of a satisfactory dam, and the design organization had no records of ever even having read the document and no records to justify how they did it, I don’t know how they addressed those issues. [Music] The restricted flow of information or stove piping, and the lack of documentation and communication between Denver’s design branch and the field led to problems. But there were other red flags, more than a decade before Teton. Starting In the 1960’s, private, municipal, and Federal dams such as Gibson, Swift, Buffalo Creek, Baldwin Hills, and Lower Van Norman Dam had failed or experienced emergency situations which might have mobilized the political will and raised the level of concern for dam safety. These events triggered awareness and national attention toward flood events and earthquakes at dams. Yet, at Gibson Dam in Montana, which was overtopped by four feet of water, engineers in the hydrology branch in Denver were alarmed. Jim Mumford: Reclamation realized that we may have underestimated the potential floods that a structure could have. Reclamation started going back and relooking at the floods, based on the new meteorology that we had and the new hydrology of old dams and existing dams. By contrast, the 1965 near-collapse of Fontanelle Dam, almost identical to the Teton failure, was largely ignored or left unexamined. Larry Von Thun: Fontanelle is brought up as a case, and is illustrated how and why that failed, and the parallels and similarities to Teton are remarkable. The way the bureau embankment dam section was going, of using the same designs, using the same processes in the field, continued after Fontanelle. Brent Carter: And we should have learned there because we had some of the same design engineers on Fontenelle that were involved with Teton. Jim Mumford: They lowered the reservoir, released the water downstream, and were able to control the event and
then repair the dam. Reclamation might not have learned all its lessons it should have learned from Fontenelle. But there were many questions left unanswered.
What led to this event? How were designers, field personnel and staff to know the history of what had happened? What process or mechanism could be developed to alert others to see the warning signs before it was too late? [Music] Jim Mumford: One of the credits of the Teton legacy that Reclamation had, and probably made Reclamation survive the Teton failure organizationally, is that, Reclamation did not shy away from investigating Teton. The first reaction was, “We’ve got to find out what went wrong.” Besides two legislative acts, a Presidential memorandum and investigation panels from the industry, Interior and Congress, Reclamation, was also digging deeply into the causes of failure. These actions translated into marching orders for the agency, and this prompted the search for new talent and new approaches to Reclamation’s workflow that would bring about a sea change in Reclamation. Central to this development were the recommendations made by the Department of Interior’s Teton Dam Failure Review Group or IRG. They identified four major improvements that sowed the seeds of dam safety within Reclamation. The focus on dam safety grew out this and three other initiatives. With these, Reclamation stood ready to launch its own dam safety program. Brent Carter: It just became very apparent, OK, we made some mistakes. Let’s learn from the mistakes, let’s share the mistakes. Once that happened and the Safety of Dams Act came out after Teton, Reclamation people pulled together very well, pulled together tremendously. [Music] Since its inception, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Dam Safety Program has evolved into a dynamic force throughout the bureau. The commitment to dam safety extends from the Commissioner in Washington, to the field staff at every Reclamation dam. Though the safety program may now seem common place, it’s the result of many significant changes that occurred since Teton. They include: Principal Designer and Principal Geologist, Technical and Decision Memoranda, Peer Review, Project Management, Comprehensive Facility Review, Emergency Action Planning, and Risk Management. [Music] Larry Von Thun: One of the big changes that our internal review team recommended and took place, was the establishment of a Principal Engineer and a Responsible Geologist. In the aftershock of Teton, this change
re-connected the designers with the field people. Larry Von Thun: Those two people, especially the Principal Engineer, were put on the same plane as the Construction Engineer. And that became the active interaction, that’s where the work got done for the next 20, 30 years. Bruce Muller: What it did was it overlaid on the line organization a project organization that ensured there would be somebody who had a day-to-day, hands-on responsibility for the success of that project. Larry Von Thun: That concept of the Principal Engineer being on par with the Construction Engineer was the way that Reclamation actually survived over the next 20 years. More than survived, they actually thrived under that process, because it brought the work into focus. Pete Aberle: There was more interplay between the field and the design. Every paragraph was devoured prior to start of construction so the field knew every sentence what it meant in the specifications, and that had never been done before. Bruce Muller: This was monumental change from the way that we were doing business previously. It was a change that was not easily accepted at first because the line organization still felt that sense responsibility for the designs. [Music] Technical and Decision memoranda reinforced standards of accountability and improved information flow. Larry Von Thun: Documentation is very important, because that’s how the people learn and that’s how you know what’s going on. Neil Parrett: Part of the new processes in the division of design and dam of safety, was to begin to do documentation that would show what was processed in the design and what the alternative were looked at and what decisions were made. Prior to that period of time, design data had been seen as personal property, and so there were lots of dams in Reclamation that did not have records on their design. Larry Von Thun: Those decisions would be recorded. The players would be recorded, they would all sign off on it, and there would be memoranda that would show why the decision was made. That was new to Reclamation. So these younger engineers weren’t even aware of how things were done in the past. They were aware of how things should be done, so this new process was their way of doing things. It was an incredible sea change. [Music] Creation of intensive peer reviews of findings, conclusions, and recommendations of engineering evaluations have become standard industry practice. Jim Mumford: As a result of Teton, they began a mandate that we have outside consultants look at it, fresh eyes that haven’t bought off on previous decisions. Larry Von Thun: You would assign a peer reviewer who had the capability to do whatever that person was doing. And they would have to read and sign off on that. That would be a single peer reviewer. Brent Carter: That’s where the communication, people talking to other people, field reviews, bringing outside consultants from outside, unbiased, bringing them on site with your designers, your field people and you thrash it out as to are things looking good or not. [Music] The formation of a Project Management Team to oversee the design or construction process for each project has led to increased accountability and sharing of information. Bruce Muller: Those teams become responsible for the designs and for coordination of the designs. I think it just creates an entirely different dynamic that allows people to see more of what’s happening and understand how the actions that they take or the choices and decisions they make, how it affects other aspects of the design of a project. Brent Carter: I think that’s the big thing, we are accountable to each other. The technical staffs are accountable to each other, they talk about things, they interact, and they solve problems. [Music] Comprehensive Facility Review evaluates the design and operational history for each dam
on 8-year and 4-year cycles. The SEED program or Safety Evaluation of Existing Dams, leads the industry with its regular examination of Reclamation structures. Brian Becker: Within that program we perform all those routine activities, to insure the reliability and health of the facility which includes examinations, performance monitoring, and evaluations. Comprehensive reviews evaluate the performance and the history of a
Reclamation structure on an 8-year cycle. If we identify an issue as part of that comprehensive review such as an issue related to potential flooding, or potential seismic loading, or a static loading related to seepage through the embankment, we would take a closer look throughout an issue evaluation. Jim Mumford: We were already inspecting them to make sure that they would operate OK, but now we expanded those inspections to include safety issues. Brian Becker: When our team identifies a recognizable or probable hazard, we engage in a multi-tiered process leading to if necessary a Corrective Action Study. In a Corrective Action Study we examine the root causes of a problem, draw up a plan of action and work with a team of engineers and geologist to find a solution. The Corrective Action Study assures that the public safety is not compromised. [Music] Emergency Action Planning (EAP’s) plays an integral role in the operation of Reclamation projects. During an emergency, EAP’s are a critical life-saving tool. Jim Mumford: Following Teton and after the flood was taken care of and they were trying to rebuild the communities, President Carter immediately issued an executive order. That executive order mandated to the agencies, the Federal agencies, that they would instigate Emergency Action Plans, we called them Emergency Preparedness Plans for all our dams. These plans contain three major components:
A system of response levels applicable across various scenarios, internal and external communication protocols, and criteria for notifying downstream partners and emergency responders. Jim Mumford: And then those communications directories are developed and communication lines are developed between our existing dams or any new dam, and the local and state law enforcement agencies that would be charged with evacuating the communities. [Music] The practice of risk management and risk reduction embraced by Reclamation in the 1990’s, has been elevated from an art to a systematic science. More than way to quantify risk in a structure, risk management combines assessment and analysis, and the commitment of resources into one package. Bruce Muller: You cannot make the statement in literal terms that a dam is absolutely safe, because safe by definition, is the absence of risk. What the risk analysis approach in dam safety brought was the ability for people to think outside the box and to begin thinking about what could actually cause the dam to fail. Larry Von Thun: Dams had to be handled with a different process. We developed this risk based decision as a hands on, easy to understand process that management could understand. Bruce Muller: One of the really important aspects of the Dam Safety Program, is that it goes beyond the traditional thinking of design. You can have all of the design standards and manuals and things like that you want to have, but there is no one checklist that you can go through to ensure that the dam is reasonably safe. Larry Von Thun: We should not be so cocky that we think we don’t have any risks, so we should show what the risk was and include risk in our decision making. [Music] The Dam Safety Office implements policy, and coordinates and directs dam safety efforts within Reclamation. The Dam Safety Team in Denver and designees in each Region initiate comprehensive annual reviews for each dam according to a master schedule, and provide briefings from line managers up to the Regional Directors. Reclamation also responds to observations of significant changes in dam behavior to quickly assess changes to our understanding of risk at that dam. The Reclamation Dam Safety Program is recognized worldwide as the standard for
dam safety and risk management. Post-Teton Reclamation has re-established
its trust with the American people. It has developed transparency in operations, raised visibility with the program, and fostered openness to external review, all to assure that Reclamation dams don’t pose an unreasonable risk to the public. For those guiding Reclamation’s future, some words of advice. Jim Mumford: There are very few structures that we deal with as a society that could have a greater impact to a community than the dams. It’s a major responsibility nobody takes lightly. Essentially, what we learned was that you have to look and study the unimaginable, the worst case. Neil Stessman: Question authority. Where ever you are in the organization, empower yourself to express your own opinion. In Reclamation, I guess as if I were going into any organization today, I would encourage people for their own job satisfaction, use your skills. And if your idea is different than someone else’s, test it out. Ask them. Give your suggestion. Ask to have your opinion considered. Max Vandenberg: Absolutely the number one priority in this agency with all these structures, is to make absolutely certain that they’re safe, and that they are producing the benefits for which they were authorized and for which they were built. Dave Achterberg: For those that are new to the agency, you’re coming to an agency that’s got a rich history and pride associated with what the agency has been able to accomplish. Coming to the agency you’ve inherited a vast infrastructure. As being public servants, it’s your responsibility to help carry out the public trust of protecting those facilities that you’re now working with. I challenge you to learn Reclamation’s history, to be able to work together and look at the processes that need to be in place as we continue to be challenged in the future. [Music]

5 thoughts on “Dam Safety, Evolution of a Program

  1. Film states (12:30), "…Reclamation did not shy away from investigating Teton. The first reaction was 'We've got to find out what went wrong." What went wrong is explained in the film is incredibly bad engineering with respect to existing geologic conditions. The film blames this on USGS.  

  2. Related story from engineering geology class, Dr. James Baer, BYU – years ago – he explained the faults & related issues at the dam site (described in the video) were well known to geologists. For some reason Reclamation wasn't concerned. He warned Reclamation to no avail. One day during a field trip on the bus with his geology student, as I recall it was a Saturday, he heard on the radio there was a little leak BUT nothing to be concerned about. He said he knew it was all over. A while later he heard the same on the radio.  

  3. Given that they nearly lost Glen Canyon in 1983, I have to wonder just how much "genuine change" followed Teton. This film presents things in the best possible light, and seem to be little more than a propaganda piece.

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