Dam Failure: Overview of Federal Programs and Resources


Dam Failure: Overview of Federal Programs
and Resources

May 26, 2020
On May 19, 2020, following several days of heavy rain, the Edenville Dam on the Tittabawasee River in
Gladwin County, MI, failed and sent a large volume of water downstream that overtopped the Sanford
Dam in Midland County. A local utility company owns both dams. Michigan evacuated approximately
10,000 downstream residents. Concerns were raised about the potential spread of environmental
contamination from a Dow Chemical Company facility in Midland and an associated federal Superfund
site, which are downstream of the dams. On May 21, 2020, President Trump approved Michigan’s
emergency declaration and ordered Stafford Act federal assistance for responding to severe storms and
flooding beginning on May 16.
This flood represents the first major test of the federal response to a weather-related emergency during the
COVID-19 operating environment. Below is an overview of federal programs that may be applicable to
nonfederal dam safety incidents.
Dam Safety
The National Inventory of Dams (NID) lists more than 90,000 dams, of which 97% are owned by
nonfederal entities. About 17% of NID-listed dams are classified as high hazard potential (i.e., the loss of
at least one life is likely if the dam fails), including the Edenville and Sanford Dams, which were built
nearly 100 years ago for hydropower and flood control. The NID lists 2,384 of the high hazard potential
dams as poor or unsatisfactory. Stakeholders estimate the cost to rehabilitate high hazard potential
nonfederal dams is approximately $20 billion.
Dam owners generally are responsible for dam safety. Selected states and federal programs may provide
limited assistance. Every state (except Alabama) and Puerto Rico has established a dam safety regulatory
The National Dam Safety Program (43 U.S.C. §467f), operated by the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA), provides support for state dam safety programs. In addition, FEMA’s
High Hazard Dam Rehabilitation Grant Program (43 U.S.C. §467f-2) may provide limited funding
assistance for eligible high hazard nonfederal dams.
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Nonfederal Hydropower Licensing
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) licenses the construction and operation of
nonfederal hydropower projects under the Federal Power Act (16 U.S.C. §§791-825r). FERC monitors
and investigates
hydropower facilities to ensure compliance with license terms and conditions, and it may
revoke a license if the licensee has knowingly violated a final order.
Regarding the two Michigan dams, FERC
 issued a license in December 1987 that expires in September 2028 for the Sanford
 revoked the license for the Edenville project, held by Boyce Hydro Power LLC as the
licensee, in September 2018 due to the licensee’s “longstanding failure to increase the
project’s spillway capacity to safely pass flood flows, as well as its failure to comply with
its license”
among other things; and
 issued a four-year preliminary permit for the Edenville project in December 2019, which
allows the permittee―a multi-county coalition named Four Lake Task Force―to
maintain priority of application for a license while the permittee studies the site in
question and prepares for a license application.
Emergency Response to Oil or Chemical Spills Caused
by Flooding
Flooding may disperse preexisting contamination, potentially damage remedies at cleanup sites, or cause
new releases at operating facilities. The National Contingency Plan (NCP) establishes the procedures for
coordinating federal, state, and local roles in responding to oil or chemical spills. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) coordinates the federal response under the NCP for releases in the inland zone.
EPA reports “it is prepared to assist the State of Michigan in assessing and responding to any public
health and environmental impacts from the Tittabawassee River Superfund Site and Dow’s Midland
facility due to the ongoing flooding.” Dow reports it has activated the Midland facility’s flood
preparedness plan. Such events illustrate long-standing issues regarding facility vulnerabilities and the
permanence of cleanup site remedies.
National Flood Insurance Program
The communities affected by flooding caused by the dam failures participate in the National Flood
Insurance Program (NFIP)
. Dam breach inundation zones are not shown on NFIP flood maps as areas
requiring flood insurance. However, over 300 residents of Midland County had NFIP flood insurance as
of April 30, 2020, and will be able to claim for flood damage through the NFIP claims process. An NFIP
claim does not require an emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration.
FEMA Disaster Assistance and COVID-19 Complexity
Funding for Public Assistance (PA) emergency work is now available for state and local governments
following the emergency declaration on May 21, 2020. This includes debris removal and work undertaken
to save lives and protect property. Certain nonprofit organizations are eligible for PA, but for-profit
businesses are not. FEMA has provided guidance for adaptation to COVID-19 in disaster response and

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FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance includes the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), which is
triggered by a major disaster declaration and is awarded as a formula grant to a state based on the
estimated total federal assistance, subject to a sliding-scale formula (42 U.S.C. §5170c(a)). States can use
HMGP funds for any eligible activity for any type of hazard and are not limited to the hazard or area for
which the grant was awarded.
CRS Resources
 CRS Report R45981, Dam Safety Overview and the Federal Role
 CRS Report R45017, Flood Resilience and Risk Reduction: Federal Assistance and
 CRS Report R44593, Introduction to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)
 CRS Insight IN11187, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard
Mitigation Assistance
 CRS In Focus IF11529, A Brief Overview of FEMA’s Public Assistance Program
 CRS Report R42579, Hydropower: Federal and Nonfederal Investment
 CRS In Focus IF11411, The Legal Framework of the Federal Power Act
 CRS Report R43251, Oil and Chemical Spills: Federal Emergency Response Framework

Author Information

Anna E. Normand
Kelsi Bracmort
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Specialist in Natural Resources and Energy Policy

Diane P. Horn
David M. Bearden
Analyst in Flood Insurance and Emergency Management Specialist in Environmental Policy

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