Argonne helps prepare communities for dams – EurekAlert

Climate extremes and outdated dam infrastructure make dam emergency action plans more important than ever.

There are more than 90,000 dams registered in the US National Dams Inventory across the country. But we rarely hear about them until the worst happens: one of them fails.

In 2020, record rainfall caused two ancient dams along the Tetapawasi River to breach within hours of each other. The result was historic floods. Failed dams – dating back nearly a century – have displaced thousands of residents and caused millions of dollars in damage.

Local jurisdictions do not have access to the resources or expertise needed to fully assess the potentially devastating risks and impacts associated with dams on their communities. They also often lack vital plans for an effective response.” — Molly Finster, Environmental Health Systems Scientist, Argonne Department of Infrastructure and Decision Sciences

Such incidents are rare. But weather extremes such as floods and storms put additional pressure on the aging infrastructure of dams in the United States that provide essential functions such as water storage, hydropower generation, flood control, and recreation. The age of dams combined with the strength of the water that traps them present potential risks to downstream communities.

Regardless, many communities are unprepared for dam-related emergencies, said Molly Finster, an environmental health systems scientist in the Division of Infrastructure and Decision Sciences at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

“Local jurisdictions do not have access to the resources or expertise needed to fully assess the potentially devastating risks and impacts associated with dams on their communities. They often lack vital plans for an effective response. Emergency managers recognize that dam failure can be devastating. However, Finster said, They are often, and understandably, preoccupied with other, more pressing issues, such as a pandemic, hurricane or wildfire. For this reason, dam safety may not be a top priority.”

To help communities better understand their risks and potential consequences of a dam-related incident, Argonne experts are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the Cooperative Technical Assistance Program. The program provides at-risk communities with the expertise, training, and tools to develop emergency action plans. It is offered by FEMA’s National Dam Safety Program, in partnership with National Integration Centers.

Communities learn through modeling, flood maps

Through the FEMA program, Argonne experts work with dam owners and operators and contingency planners to create dam-related emergency action plans that are ready for use in the real world.

Finster offers in-person and virtual sessions on dam safety topics including risk-informed decision-making, infrastructure dependence, and flood inundation modeling and mapping. Mustafa Altinkar, Senior Computational Hydroscience Engineer at Argun, is training participants on a web-based dam-breaking flood simulation model called Decision Support System for Water Infrastructure Safety (DSS-WISE™) Lite.

Altinakar developed the DSS-WISE™ Lite model about a decade ago at the University of Mississippi with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2016, FEMA has used a web-based integrated software package that combines the latest 2D digital flood models with a series of geographic information system (GIS)-based decision support tools.

“Participants do not need modeling experience to run this simulation software,” Altinkar said. “I teach them to use DSS-WISE™ Lite in a step-by-step process, explaining what the software does and how to run simulations for various scenarios. We can set up simulations in a matter of minutes with minimal user-provided input data.”

Visualizing flood scenarios is key to understanding the potential consequences of dam failure. Simulations generated by the DSS-WISE™ Lite model generate flood maps for different dam failure scenarios. This simulation also estimates the potential impact on lives and property in downstream communities based on the speed and depth of flood waters. Altinkar said users from more than 40 states have run nearly 40,000 simulations since 2016.

Finster uses flood maps to help communities create dam-related contingency plans. “I guide participants through the steps of applying the principles of risk analysis related to dams to their planning efforts,” she said. “The contacts, relationships, and products developed during the CTA can also help communities apply for grant funding to make much-needed improvements.”

Argonne is dedicated to enhancing dam safety and resilience

The Dam Safety CTA has been implemented at nine US locations, including Snohomish County, and Shengton; San Diego County, California; South Carolina and Puerto Rico.

“In Snohomish County, our analysis showed that a downstream community would be underwater within 45 minutes of a catastrophic dam failure. The Cooperative Technical Assistance Program supported the development of evacuation and shelter plans in place for dam-related emergencies,” Finster said.

In addition to the technical assistance process, the DSS-WISE™ Lite model has been used in many dam-related emergencies as a real-time simulation and decision support tool to aid response efforts. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, program leaders used the tool to simulate all the levees on the island of Puerto Rico. Users have deployed the tool to assess the risks and potential consequences associated with collapsed dams.

Argonne’s work in promoting dam safety and resilience extends to her research on hydroelectric dams that use a reservoir, a large natural or artificial lake as a water source.

Altinakar and Vladimir Koritarov, Argonne Director of the Center for Energy, Environmental and Economic Systems Analysis in the Department of Energy Systems and Infrastructure Analysis, review liner systems to improve safety and reduce storage loss for tanks of pumped closed-loop hydropower plants. Primers are used to reduce infiltration or water loss and reduce the need for make-up water. Work is being conducted through the HydroWIRES program of the Department of Energy.

These plants generate electricity when water is released from an upstream tank through a turbine to a downstream tank. At night, when electricity is cheaper, the turbines are reversed to pump water back into the upstream reservoir. These plants provide an efficient way to store energy.

“The tanks of pumped-storage hydropower plants should be designed with a suitable lining system to minimize water infiltration and leakage. The liners also ensure the stability of the bridge slopes against repeated cycles of filling and rapid water withdrawal during normal operation,” Altinkar said.

“Because of the evolving nature of downstream conditions, dam safety should be an ongoing process,” Altinkar continued. “You cannot make a contingency action plan and then forget about it. Plans must be reviewed and updated regularly.”

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