Safe Dams Program
The Safe Dams Program within the Division Water Resources in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is responsible for carrying out the requirements of the Safe Dams Act of 1973.
Some of the duties of the Safe Dams Program include:
- Maintaining an accurate inventory of the dams within our state.
- Reviewing plans for new dam construction.
- Periodically inspecting all regulated dams within our state.
- Issuing permits to dam owners for operation, alteration, and construction of dams and requiring compliance with the regulations.
Under the Tennessee Safe Dams Act, a dam is defined as any structure that is at least 20 feet high or that can impound at least 30 acre-feet of water. Dams are assigned hazard potential categories that reflect the threat to life and property in the event of a failure. These categories are: High Hazard, Significant Hazard, and Low Hazard.
Safety inspections of dams are performed by Safe Dams staff every one, two, and three years, respectively, for these categories of dams. The responsibility of building and maintaining a dam rests solely with the owner. As a dam owner, you are liable for the water stored behind your dam. A dam failure, resulting in an uncontrolled release of the reservoir, can have a devastating effect on people and property downstream. Additionally, a dam failure could mean loss of a vital resource to you. Therefore, proper construction, operation, maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of a dam are key elements in preventing a failure, limiting your liability, and maintaining your water resource.
The division issues three types of permits regarding safe dams:
An operating permit is issued for an existing dam after an inspection of the dam is performed showing that the dam is in compliance with the regulations. The owner has to submit an application form and pay the $500 inspection fee (no fee is required if the dam was built by a watershed district).
An alteration permit is issued when an existing dam has to be repaired or modified. This permit is only issued after Safe Dams staff reviews and approves plans and specifications submitted by a professional engineer licensed in the state of Tennessee and the dam owner submits an application form. No fee is required for an alteration permit.
A construction permit is required for construction of a new dam. This permit is only issued after Safe Dams staff reviews and approves plans and specifications submitted by a professional engineer licensed in the state of Tennessee. The dam owner also has to pay a plans review fee and submit an application form.
Certain classes of dams are exempt from regulation under the Safe Dams Act. The main exemption is for "farm ponds". Farm ponds are defined in the regulations as "...any impoundment used only for providing water for agriculture and domestic purposes such as livestock and poultry watering, irrigation of crops, recreation, and conservation, for the owner or occupant of the farm, his family, and invited guests, but does not include any impoundment for which the water, or privileges or products of the water, are available to the general public." A farm pond is exempt from the Safe Dams Act, but may NOT be exempt from other permitting requirements such as ARAP, etc.
Construction or alteration of a dam may also require permits from the Natural Resources Unit of the Division of Water Resources and a Section 404 permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers and/or a Section 26-A permit from Tennessee Valley Authority. Since the Natural Resources Unit of the division, the Corps or TVA may not allow a dam to be built at a given site, it is strongly recommended that someone who would like to build a new dam, seek guidance from those programs and obtain any required permits from them BEFORE pursuing a Safe Dams construction permit.
As mentioned above, the construction of dams on streams or creeks in Tennessee in most cases requires an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit from the Division of Water Resources. Streams and creeks are protected for uses such as irrigation, recreation, fish and aquatic life, and livestock water and wildlife. ARAP permits may not be issued for alterations that would damage those uses unless there is an over-riding social or economic benefit to the local community.
The basic purpose of a dam, which is to impound flow, can significantly impact downstream waters. Dams on small streams (headwaters) interrupt the normal stream flow downstream. Depending on the size of the pond or lake relative to the watershed upstream of it, the impoundment will typically not stay filled and overflowing -- especially during summer months.
Building a dam on a stream is known to degrade not just water quantity, but also water quality. Impounded waters become stagnant and are a profoundly different ecological environment than a free-flowing stream. In general, most aquatic species that inhabit a natural free-flowing stream cannot survive in an impoundment. Water quality problems most commonly associated with stagnated waters include elevated water temperatures, decreased dissolved oxygen, elevated metals (manganese and iron) from reduction and oxidation in the bed of the reservoir, elevated nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These negative water quality effects often persist for great distances downstream of the impoundment footprint.
The department’s investigations show that most headwater impoundments, because of interruption of flow and degradation of water quality, damage uses of the streams within, and downstream of the dam. Where degradation to water quality will occur, the regulations allow that where an applicant can demonstrate a substantial need, such as a public water supply, or can demonstrate that it will only have insignificant consequence may a permit be approved. It is an applicant’s responsibility to show a social or economic benefit that would justify degradation to water quality and show that there is no alternative to achieve the social and economic benefit that does not degrade water quality.
Where Can I Get More Information?
To get more information on dams and water quality issues, please contact one of the offices listed below.
Division of Water Resources
William R. Snodgrass Tennessee Tower
312 Rosa L. Parks Avenue, 11th Floor
Nashville, TN 37243
TDEC Field Offices
TDEC Environmental Field Offices
Nashville District Corps of Engineers
P. O. Box 1070
Nashville, TN 37202-1070
Tennessee Valley Authority
Natural Resources Building
Norris, TN 37828
Phone: (423) 632-1552