Report: Better security needed at U.S. dams

Aug. 20--A national report Tuesday said better security is needed at federal dams, but the Bureau of Reclamation said it is already addressing many of the concerns and heeding other advice in the report.

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, acknowledged that Reclamation has significantly beefed up security at the 479 dams it manages in 17 states since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Reclamation's dams are among the largest of the nation's 80,000 dams and many of them would threaten human life and property if they fail for any reason. The panel that evaluated federal security was chaired by John Christian, a consulting engineer from Waban, Mass., and 13 engineering and security experts. The study was requested and sponsored by Reclamation.

However, it said Reclamation's response relies heavily on local law enforcement and only a few dams have trained first responders on-site. The study also said Reclamation has an uneven commitment to developing an effective security program.

"The decentralized operations of Reclamation mean that the first responders to a security incident are local law enforcement, although Hoover Dam has an on-site police department and Grand Coulee Dam has a security force trained as first responders," the NRC said in a news release. "The chain of command during a security-related incident is unclear." The committee recommended increasing resources for security in a way that does not compromise the primary missions of providing water and power.

Reclamation has invested $84 million in fortification of dams since 9/11 and plans to spend another $50 million this year on guards and fortification, said Peter Soeth, Reclamation spokesman.

"Information in the report is about a year old," Soeth said. "Reclamation has addressed some of the issues, and will use the report to further our security and safety programs."

Reclamation is also forming an internal advisory board on security measures, Soeth said.

Under the Fryingpan Arkansas Project, Reclamation operates Lake Pueblo, Twin Lakes, Turquoise Lake and Ruedi Reservoir. Reclamation works with local law enforcement officials and has a plan at each facility, although details cannot be revealed, Soeth said.

"We always have a good ongoing discussion with local officials, and we've worked with them on a regular basis," Soeth said.

During a safety of dams program at Lake Pueblo in the 1990s, Reclamation determined that a catastrophic failure of the dam could put the lives of up to 12,000 people in danger. The federal agency spent $17.5 million to physically reinforce the dam as a result. The dam has numerous monitors to register any geologic shift. No major shifts have been recorded.

Security measures at the dam were put in place immediately following the 9/11 attacks, but the details have never been released. Dams and water supplies have been considered high-priority potential targets of terrorists.

Like other major utilities, the Pueblo Board of Water Works also upgraded its security -- spending more than $1 million -- after 9/11 to protect drinking water supply and quality. Those measures are also not discussed in public.