A Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Safe Dams Program Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

•    What is a dam?
•    How do I determine the directions “left of dam”, “right of dam”, “upstream”, and “downstream”?
•    How is the Safe Dams Program involved in dam regulation?
•    I received a letter notifying me that my dam has been classified Category I. What does this mean?
•    Can I appeal the Category I classification?
•    Does a Category I classification mean the dam is unsafe?
•    What are the regulatory requirements for a Category II dam?
•    What is a watershed dam?
•    I would like to build a dam. What do I need to do?
•    How is dam ownership determined?
•    As a dam owner, what are my responsibilities?
•    Will the Safe Dams Program inspect my dam for me?
•    What types of trees and vegetation are not allowed to grow on my dam?
•    Why do I need to fill out a permit application?
•    What is involved in the permitting process?
•    What is an Engineer of Record?
•    What are my options for bringing the dam into compliance with the Act and Rules?
•    How do I know if something is wrong with my dam?
•    What do I do if there is something wrong with a dam that I do not own?
•    What is an EAP?
•    Who should be contacted in case of an emergency?

What is a dam?
 As defined by the Georgia Safe Dams Act and Rules for Dam Safety (Act and Rules), a “dam” is any artificial barrier that impounds or diverts water which is 25 feet or more in height OR has a maximum impounding capacity of 100 acre-feet or more. 

How do I determine the directions “left of dam”, “right of dam”, “upstream”, and “downstream”?
When standing on the dam with your back to the lake or impoundment, your right is the dam’s right side, your left is the dam’s left side, downstream is the direction that you are facing, and upstream is directly behind you.

How is the Safe Dams Program involved in dam regulation?
The Safe Dams Program (SDP) receives its legal authorization from OCGA§12-5-370 to 12-5-385 which is the Georgia Safe Dams Act. The Safe Dams Program is responsible for developing and maintaining an inventory of dams, classifying dams, and ensuring compliance of all regulated dams. Only Category I dams are regulated. To be considered a Category I dam, the improper operation or failure would result in a probable loss of human life. The Georgia Safe Dams Act requires permits for these projects. The Safe Dams Program is also responsible for ordering enforcement actions be taken against owners who do not comply with the Act and Rules. 

I received a letter notifying me that my dam has been classified Category I. What does this mean?
The three main classifications of dams described in the Act and Rules are “Category I”, “Category II”, and “Exempt”. To be considered a Category I dam, the improper operation or failure would result in a probable loss of human life. The Georgia Safe Dams Act requires permits for these projects. Dams that meet the height and/or storage criteria but would not cause probable loss of life are classified Category II. Exempt structures include any dam that is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, structures constructed as part of EPD approved surface mining, any dam owned by the United States Government, any structure that is not greater than 25 feet in height and impounds less than 100 acre-feet of water, any structure that is not greater than 6 feet in height regardless of storage volume, and any structure that impounds less than 15 acre-feet regardless of height. Permits are not required for Category II or exempt structures. (See Why do I need to fill out a permit application? and What is involved in the permitting process?)

Can I appeal the Category I classification? 
Under Georgia law, you have the right to appeal the Category I determination within 30 days of receipt of the letter notifying you of the classification. Your appeal must clearly demonstrate that the classification is in error. 

Does a Category I classification mean the dam is unsafe?
A Category I classification is not an indication of the condition of the dam. The classification relates to the hazard potential should the dam fail for any reason. In addition, the classification is not an indication of the likelihood of failure.

What are the regulatory requirements for a Category II dam?
There are no regulatory requirements for a Category II dam. The Safe Dams Program re-inventories Category II dams at least once every 5 years. The re-inventory involves checking that the dam still exists and evaluating downstream to make sure the dam is properly classified. If modifications to the dam or changes in development downstream indicate the potential for probable loss of life, the dam may be reclassified Category I.

What is a watershed dam?
These dams were built by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) on private property for flood control.  State and/or local governments have an easement responsibility to operate and maintain these dams.  These dams are built to temporarily store water runoff after a heavy rainstorm and gradually release the water over time.  This practice reduces flooding downstream. There are 357 watershed dams in the state. 

I would like to build a dam. What do I need to do?
Anyone planning to construct or modify a dam in the state of Georgia should contact the Safe Dams Program at (404) 463-2461 as a permit may be required.  Even if a permit is not required from the Safe Dams Program, permits from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (for a 404 wetlands permit), along with a land disturbing permit and a stream buffer variance may be required (See Why do I need to fill out a permit application? and What is involved in the permitting process?).

How is dam ownership determined?
 An owner of a dam is considered to be anyone who owns any portion of the dam or appurtenant works of the dam. This is generally determined using county tax records. If these records indicate that your property includes any part of the dam, you are judged to be either an owner or partial owner of the dam. The Act and Rules do not distinguish between the owner/operator of a dam. If your property does not include a portion of the dam, but you are an operator (such as by holding an easement, performing maintenance activities, controlling the spillways, etc.), you are also considered an owner.

As a dam owner, what are my responsibilities?
The owner of a dam has certain responsibilities and liabilities according to the Act and Rules. The owner must obtain and follow any necessary permits as directed by the Act and Rules. Additionally, the owner must inspect and maintain the dam on a regular basis. Routine inspection and maintenance allows early detection of many problems that may occur with a dam. The dam owner is required to contact the Safe Dams Program when a deficiency or potential failure is noticed.

Will the Safe Dams Program inspect my dam for me?
According to the Act and Rules, it is the responsibility of the dam owners to inspect and maintain their dams. Private consultants who specialize in dams should be retained to perform a thorough inspection of the dam. 

What types of trees and vegetation are not allowed to grow on my dam?
A healthy cover of grass is desirable as erosion protection. The growth of deep-rooted vegetation, such as large shrubs and trees, is undesirable as it may decrease the integrity of the dam.   If the trees and shrubs are less than 8” in diameter, the trees and shrubs must be removed from the dam, any holes must be filled in and compacted, and the area must be seeded.  If the trees and shrubs are greater than 8” in diameter, then an engineer must be hired to determine the best way to safely remove the inappropriate vegetation and repair the dam. Appropriate vegetation such as grass should be regularly mowed to allow for easy identification of problems with the dam.  

Why do I need to fill out a permit application? 
In the State of Georgia, a permit is required to own, operate or construct a Category I dam. An application must be filled out in order to obtain a permit. If the dam is not in compliance with standards set forth in the Act and Rules, the permit will not be granted until design plans for bringing the dam into compliance are approved by the Safe Dams Program.

What is involved in the permitting process? 
The complete permitting process is outlined in the Engineer Guidelines. Generally, this process includes hiring an Engineer of Record to design, plan, and oversee construction of the dam. The Engineer of Record will submit a complete design package.  Any major corrections or changes must be resubmitted to Safe Dams Program for approval. Once the design documents are accepted by the Safe Dams Program, approval will be issued to the owner. Construction can begin after this approval is received. The Safe Dams Program will perform a final inspection once construction is complete. The Engineer of Record will then be required to provide as-built plans and certification that the work was completed in accordance with the plans. Afterwards, the owners must continue to follow the conditions outlined in their permit and perform routine maintenance. 

What is an Engineer of Record?
As defined by the Rules for dam safety, an Engineer of Record (EOR) is a licensed engineer registered in the State of Georgia who has at least 7 years of demonstrated experience related to the investigation, design and/or construction of dams. The Engineer of Record designation is conferred by the Safe Dams Program after an engineer has substantiated his/her qualifications by application prior to his/her engagement by an owner/operator of a Category I dam. While the Engineer of Record designation indicates demonstrated experience related to dams, it is not an endorsement by the State of any particular engineer. During Category I dam construction or modification, an Engineer of Record must be retained to design and oversee construction. General duties of the Engineer of Record are listed in the Engineer Guidelines.

What are my options for bringing the dam into compliance with the Act and Rules?
The dam may be brought into compliance either by addressing any deficiencies or by addressing the hazard potential. General options are as follows:

a. Upgrade the dam if needed: You will be required to retain an Engineer of Record to submit design plans for addressing any deficiencies with the dam. Once the design plans have been approved and implemented, the dam will remain Category I and should be inspected on a regular basis to ensure it is being maintained properly and remains in compliance. Owners are required to perform routine inspections, maintain the dam, and address any deficiencies if they arise.

b. Breach the dam: Owners are required to fill out a breach application and retain an Engineer of Record to submit design plans for safely breaching the dam. Once the plans are approved and the dam has been breached, owners will have no further responsibilities relating to the Act and Rules.

c. Modify the dam so that there will be no probable loss of life risk downstream: Owners are required to retain an Engineer of Record to perform an extended dam failure flood study to identify all potential structures at risk and submit design plans for the necessary modifications to the dam such that a probable loss of life no longer exists. Once the flood study and design plans have been approved and the modifications implemented, the dam may be reclassified either Category II (low hazard) or exempt at the EPD Director’s discretion.

d. Remove or modify the downstream structure(s) at risk: Owners are required to retain an Engineer of Record to perform an extended dam failure flood study to identify all potential structures at risk. All identified structures will have to be permanently removed from the dam failure flood zone or in some cases may be flood-proofed (design plans for flood-proofing would have to be reviewed and approved by the Safe Dams Program). Once the structures have been removed or adequately flood-proofed, the dam may be reclassified Category II at the EPD Director’s discretion.

How do I know if something is wrong with my dam?
Major indicators of possible dam failure include heavy seepage, overflowing water (overtopping), sink holes, sand boils, muddy water flow from drains, and unusual water level.  Other symptoms of failure include, but are not limited to erosion, surface cracks, settlement, movement, and wetness on the slope of the embankment.

What do I do if there is something wrong with a dam that I do not own?
If you notice a non-emergency issue with a dam that you do not own, you should notify the owner of the dam. If the problems with the dam are impacting your property and you are unable to resolve the matter with the owner, this may become a civil matter and you should seek legal advice. If the situation with the dam is an emergency situation, call 9-1-1.

What is an EAP?
An EAP is an “emergency action plan” which is required as part of a project submittal.  An Emergency Action Plan (EAP) is a formal plan that identifies potential emergency conditions at a dam and outlines procedures to follow to minimize property damage and loss of life. Having an effective EAP is critical to reducing the risk of loss of life and property damage from a dam failure. A dam failure can be a personal as well as a legal calamity to a dam owner as the damage may impact homes, businesses, schools, or other institutions.

Who should be contacted in case of an emergency? 
 An emergency is defined as a condition which develops unexpectedly, endangers the structural integrity of the dam and/or downstream property and human life, and requires immediate action. During an emergency, the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) should be followed. This usually includes contacting the county Emergency Management Agency (EMA) followed by a call to the Safe Dams Program. If an EAP has not been developed for the dam yet, the owner should contact the county EMA and the Safe Dams Program immediately in the event of an emergency.