Connecticut going high-tech with dam safety

Own 234 dams
December 1, 2007 9:06:28 AM PST
If a major rain storm soaks Connecticut, Wes Marsh will soon know with a click of a mouse or a text message on his cell phone whether any of the 234 dams owned by the Department of Environmental Protection are in trouble.After spending 26 years with the state's dam safety division, often trekking through the woods and climbing around dams to look for problems, Marsh will be able to use a new high-tech system to help him quickly identify which dams pose the greatest public safety threat.

"There's actual alarms that will be tripped when rainfall amounts or stream fall are exceeded," Marsh said. "You will know what dams will not need to be looked at."

Connecticut is the first state in the country to use DamWatch, a system invented by USEngineering Solutions Corp. in Hartford, to monitor the DEP-owned dams. The system is expected to be fully operation by early 2008.

Joseph Scannell, president of USEngineering and a former senior project engineer for Connecticut's Department of Transportation, said there is a growing interest nationally to better monitor dams for safety and rehabilitate aging dams - which he considers the nation's forgotten infrastructure.

Scannell recently demonstrated the technology at the National Association of State Dam Safety Officials meeting in Texas. He plans to meet with a Homeland Security official next week to discuss the system and how it can help save lives nadams, flood zones and watershed areas.

In an instant, a user can also call up photos of the dam, maps and inspection reports.

"I think it's unique the way he's put those components together to give you a real-time look at what's happening to structures during a rainfall event," said Ann Kuzyk, a civil engineer in Connecticut's dam safety group.

Besides the DEP-owned dams, DamWatch will be able to help officials track potential problems at other dams across the state.

There are about 4,400 dams in Connecticut, most privately owned. Of those, 503 could cause loss of life and serious property damage if they fail. Many of those structures are in the same watersheds as the DEP-owned dams and therefore can still be monitored even though they won't officially be part of the system.

Scannell first designed a similar program called ScourWatch, a service that helps officials proactively monitor the safety of bridges. Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa and Georgia are using the system.

While a DOT engineer, he grew concerned that foundations of bridges often erode due to a phenomena called "scouring." That's when the water flowing under the bridge carries away the material around the bridge abutment or piers. The problem can be exacerbated during a storm.

The problem is the same for dams - 85 percent of which are earthen in the U.S. and more susceptible to erosion.

"What I envision is the agencies themselves can adopt the DamWatch technology quite quickly and implement quite painlessly," said Scannell. "Right now, they go around chasing phone calls and problems and they send their team wherever their crisis is calling them. It's kind of a chaotic response. It's the best they can do at this time."