Frank P. McKibben, Professor of Civil Engineering at the Lehigh University in South Bethlehem, Pa., delivered a very interesting address before the New England Waterworks Association at its annual convention in Washington on September 18 on the above subject. Professor McKibben, after pointing out the necessity of entrusting the construction of dams and reservoirs only to engineers of ability and experience, called attention to the fact that legislation had been asked for that will, if carried out, insure the safety of such structures where failure is a serious menace to human life. In regard to the conditions as to state supervision of dams and reservoirs, he said:

There are three main divisions into which a study of this question may be divided: First, the safety of the structures; second, the use of water for power, irrigation, ice harvesting, or recrea tion; third, the use of water for public water supplies. It is only with the safety of dams and reservoirs that the present paper deals, although the two other divisions are none the less important. The following twenty-seven states have laws intended to provide supervision of dams and reservoirs: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming. These laws vary in value from the rigid Colorado law, which invests the stale engineer and district water commissioners with great powers, to the obviously cumbersome inefficient method of local control by county courts or county commissioners. Fifteen states provide for state supervision, and twelve place local officials in control. Of those states having state officials or boards nine are west of the Mississippi river, and it is generally true that the laws of these western states are more rigid, more carefully and explicitly framed than those of eastern states. This is probably due to the fact that most of those in the western group arc sentiarid, where regulation of water collection and use necessarily receive greater attention than in the east, where, because water is more plentiful, the subject has not received much considerat on. The laws of Oklahoma and Colorado are among the most stringent. They require preliminary approval of plans and specifications of dams and reservoirs by a state engineer, provide for his supervision during construction, and require a certificate of operation from the state engineer before the reservoir may be used. The Colorado law contains articles covering the following points: State engineer must pass on all plans and specifications of reservoirs of capacity more than 75,000,000 cubic feet of water, or having a dam or embankment in excess of 10 feet in vertical height, and covering an area of more than 20 acres; he acts as consulting engineer during construction; has authority to require satisfactory materials and work of construction; must give owners a written certificate of acceptance upon completion of work; must annually determine amounts of water which it is safe to impound in the several reservoirs of the state. It is unlawful for owners to store water in excess of amounts specified, and water commissioners must withdraw excess waters if any exist; upon complaint of three or more persons residing or having property in such places as would be be endangered by breaking of a dam or embankment the state engineer must examine the structure and if he finds it unsafe he must immediately cause water to be lowered to a safe level; appeal from decision of the stale engineer may be made to county or district court, but judgment of the state engineer shall control until final settlement. Each county surveyor must inspect annually the reservoirs within his County and report his findings to the county commissioners, and if the owner or tenant of an unsafe reservoir or dam, after due notice, refuses to remove the danger, the county surveyor must lower the water to safety. The act states that its provisions shall not be construed as relieving owners from payment of damages caused by breaking or overflowing of dams or embankments, and makes owners liable. Owners of reservoirs pay actual expenses of state engineer in making personal inspection and also a per diem rate and expenses of any deputy; and persons making complaints about the safety of any structure as above stated must pay the state engineer’s mileage to and from the reservoir in question. The state engineer may use force to carry out the provisions of the act if necessary, and a fine is fixed in case any reservoir company fails or refuses to comply with his notice. If judiciously and conscientiously enforced, the Colorado law should give good results; but it would be better to designate to the state engineer those duties and powers now assigned to the water commissioners and county survi vors. Furthermore, the state and not individuals should pay expenses incident to examinations; and provision should be made concerning the reservoir owner’s resident engineer.

Laws of the eastern states are generally inadequate. In Pennsylvania the state board of health passes on plans for reservoirs and appurtenances used for public water supplies, and the state water supply commission by act of 1907 is invested with power of passing upon plans and specifications of dams to be built in those streams which have been declared public highways by the legislature. The water supply commission has no power to supervise dams or reservoir embankments during construction, neither is it required to issue a permit for operation, nor has it the power to examine any existing dams, and has no jurisdiction over dams built before 1907. The concrete dam in Freeman’s Run. at Austin, Pa., was finished in 1909, that is, subsequent to granting the power of approval to the water supply commission: but the dam was not under the jurisdiction of that or any other commission, because the stream wherein it was located had not been declared a public highway. The failure of the dam just mentioned so aroused public opinion that the water supply commission has made investigations of several dams suspected of being unsafe and it is also inspecting dams now under construction. It is quite evident that Pennsylvania has not sufficient protection against unsafe dams, but when the next legislature meets there should be no difficulty in securing additional enactments. Whether this supervision will come in the form of enlargements of the state water supply commission’s powers or whether there will be a consolidation of several existing commissions into a state department of public works remains to be seen, and the resulting action will be influenced by engineers only in so far as they act jointly through the various engineering societies of the commonwealth.

State supervision is not always sufficient, and federal control might be necessary. For example, when a dam is constructed in a river forming the boundary between two states, it would be under the jurisdiction of the United States War Department only when the stream is navigable. In other cases, if each adjacent state had regulations which were actively enforced, it might be very difficult or impossible to secure concerted action on the part of the two states; at any rate, there would be a chance for conflicting authority, and federal supervision may be desirable. Another case which might arise is that of an unsafe dam in one state put near the boundary, and so situated that in ease of failure destruction of life or property would result in an adjoining state. Of course, if each state had adequate supervision little chance would exist of this contingency arising, but if the state containing the dam had no efficient means of insuring safety, an effective state board in the endangered state would not have authority to act, and recourse would have to be made to public opinion or to the courts.


Assuming that state supervision to secure safety of dams, embankments and reservoirs is desirable, how can it be exercised? The following outline is suggested:

  1. Examination of plans and specifications by a properly organized state board whose approval is necessary before construction is begun. This approval should carry the proviso that a competent resident engineer be employed by the owner continuously at the dam under construction.
  2. Examination of the dam or embankment during construction by competent engineers in the employ of the board. Inasmuch as the majority of masonry dam failures have been caused by faulty foundations, it is quite evident that inspection of the foundation as well as the superstructure is necessary, and that the board acting through its chief engineer must have the authority to secure changes in plans and methods if geologic or other features of the site require such changes. To make state supervision complete and efficient, a capable state engineer must see the work at important stages. Changes in original plans and specifications should be permitted only when allowed in writing by the chief engineer, and after a dam is finished no alterations should be allowed except with the written consent of the board.
  3. Upon completion of the dam the state engineer should examine the structure and should require a report from the owner’s engineer that the dam was built in accordance with approved plans and specifications and that the structure is a. safe structure for the purpose for which it is intended. If the structure and report be approved, the board should then issue a certificate of operation.
  4. Biennially after the dam is completed the owners should be required to have a competent engineer examine the dam and reservoir and to submit his report, together with any recommendations, to the board. It is the purpose of these biennial examinations to reveal any changes in and about the dam or reservoir which might endanger the safety of the structure.
  5. At intervals not greater than five years, and oftener if necessary, the state engineer should examine each structure, and his reports should be published in the annual report of the board. In case any repairs are shown to be necessary, either by the owner’s engineer or by the state engineer, the board should order the owner to make them or to lower the water, and if he refuses, the board should apply to the judge of the county court for enforcement. Furthermore, at any time upon petition of three or more residents or property owners who consider their lives or property in danger because of the presence of a suspected faulty dam, the state engineer should examine the structure, and if repairs are necessary the board should proceed as above. Nothing in the act should relieve the owner of his full responsibility for the safety of the structure.

Many people believe it desirable to establish state control over such works or dams, reservoirs and bridges because failures of these structures endanger life and property. Probably a very much smaller number of people hold the view that the state should exercise no control whatever over these works of engineering when owned by private interests. State ownership or control does not prevent all accidents. Nevertheless, the state, that is, the people acting through certain officials, should exercise some control over structures which involve potential danger from the fact that they confine great forces of nature which if not restrained would cause loss of life or property which because of their magnitude and peculiar nature have inherent danger. As population becomes more dense, state restrictions are the more necessary. It seems therefore that state supervision is justifiable and, if properly administered, is an additional safeguard to life and property, and if of such a nature as to be an additional factor of safety or to reduce the possibility of disaster, while not relieving the owner of his responsibility, it is certainly a very desirable thing to have. No one familiar with the action of state departments or government control or government ownership believes that these are infallible agencies of preventing disaster, but the safe and sane position to take is that they simply serve as additional means of seeing that the engineer’s ideas as embodied in his plans and structures are correct. The objection has been raised against state supervision that in case a structure were approved by a state board it might relieve the owner of damages if the structure later by failing caused loss of life or property. It is not a question of who is to be liable in case a structure falls down. It is a question of preventing its falling. Furthermore, with no supervision whatever in the case of Johnstown flood no remuneration was forthcoming from the owners, and it is apparently true that those who suffered losses at Austin, Pa., will receive no payments for those losses. In both these cases the full responsibility rested on the owners, the state sharing none.

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