PROVIDENCE, RI – Rhode Island’s mill dams helped shape the Industrial Revolution, but today the state’s aging dams present a growing risk.  Now, thanks to U.S. Senator Jack Reed’s High Hazard Potential Small Dam Safety law, $169,542 in new federal dam safety funding is flowing to the Ocean State to rehabilitate, repair, or remove high hazard potential dams.

High hazard potential dams are those dams where failure or mis-operation is probable to cause loss of human life and property damage and endanger population centers and ecosystems, especially in periods of extreme weather and flooding. 

The funds are needed because as the state has grown, development has put more homes downstream from dams that were once secluded.  While Rhode Island’s dam safety officials are doing their best with limited resources, the new federal grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will help ensure public safety.

“Rhode Island has over 660 dams, some that were built over a century ago.  Many dams still play important roles with respect to our water supply, flood control, recreation, and other community uses, but others no longer serve their original purpose.  As we face greater flood risk due to climate change and urbanization, we need act to ensure that dams are not increasing the risk to lives, homes, and businesses,” said Senator Reed, the author of the High Hazard Potential Small Dam Safety Act, which was signed into law in 2016 as part of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act.  “Dam failure poses a risk to public safety and could cost communities millions of dollars in damages.  So this is a smart investment to protect against potential disaster.”

A member of the Appropriations Committee, Reed helped include $10 million for nationwide distribution under the grant program known as “Rehabilitation of High Hazard Potential Dams (HHPD) grants, authorized by this law.  The program focuses on dams that were not built or maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers or other federal agencies.  Prior to enactment of Senator Reed’s legislation, there was no federal funding source to help deal with the risk posed this category of dams, which is prevalent in the Northeast.

Like other key infrastructure, dams deteriorate over time and deferred maintenance can accelerate deterioration and cause dams to be more susceptible to failure.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) is responsible for compliance-monitoring inspections to ensure the safety of dams in Rhode Island. According to DEM’s 2018 report, Rhode Island has 669 regulated dams, 96 of which are classified as high hazard potential.

The report notes that climate change is having an impact on dam safety throughout the state: “The increased frequency of high intensity storms resulting from climate change is requiring a new look at the adequacy of the structures of the dams in Rhode Island.  The impacts of these storms on the storage capacity and overflow systems must be evaluated in future inspections.”

The report also offers detailed summaries of dams across the state.

“Rhode Island will benefit from this important federal funding, which will improve the safety of our high hazard dams, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Senator Jack Reed and our Congressional delegation,” said Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit. “There are close to 100 high hazard dams spread across our state, and the increased frequency of high intensity storms resulting from climate change raises the level of concern regarding the adequacy of these structures.  We are thankful for Senator Reed’s work to ensure that Rhode Island receives this critical funding to further the State’s effort to inspect  and repair or remove high hazard dams for the safety of present and future generations.”

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the number of high hazard potential dams increased nationally from 9,281 in 1998 to more than 14,700 in 2013.