April 23, 1977: A Formal Start to Dam Safety in the U.S. – A Memorandum From the President

April 23, 1977 marks the fortieth anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s memorandum to federal agencies with an interest in dams. The memorandum marks the start of the nation’s interest in and need to focus on dam safety. While the memorandum was certainly motivated in part by the Teton Dam failure, a federally owned dam, that occurred the year before on June 5, 1976 in Idaho, it took a much broader view of the state of dam safety in the Federal government at the time. It directed the Federal agencies to take a number of specific actions, one of which led to the development and publication in 1979 of the Federal Guidelines for Dam Safety. However, the memorandum was also rather visionary in that it identified specific areas that required ‘special attention’, including the use of risk-based analysis in all aspects of dam engineering and operation, the use by the Federal agencies of external experts, evaluating the effect of earthquake and other geologic hazards on dams, the effects of cost-saving incentives on decision making, reviewing practices for identifying and resolving dam safety problems, and the involvement of communities in addressing dam safety issues. In many ways, the President not only made dam safety a national priority, he also laid out a roadmap for its advancement that is applicable today.