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Contact: Tanya Lourigan, DNR Dam and Floodplain Section Manager or 608-444-2089

DNR Highlights Importance Of Maintaining Safe Dams

metal dam holds back water Dams are an essential part of the infrastructure in the United States, with over 90,000 dams across the country, including about 3,000 in Wisconsin. Photo credit: Wisconsin DNR

MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is highlighting the importance of maintaining safe dams in the wake of National Dam Safety Awareness Day May 31.

Dams are an essential part of the infrastructure in the United States, with over 90,000 dams across the country, including about 3,000 in Wisconsin. Proper management and maintenance of dams is vital to the public and customers associated with each dam.

Many of the dams in Wisconsin were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Over time, water pressure and weathering slowly break down a dam. If left unmaintained, dams pose an increased risk to life and property, making problems such as sudden breaks more likely during flood conditions.

The most common problems found during dam inspections are undesirable woody vegetation on the embankment, deteriorated concrete, inoperable gates and corroded outlet pipes.

The DNR Dam Safety Team provides technical assistance to Wisconsin dam owners. This support includes:

  • conducting and reviewing inspections;
  • identifying risks at dams;
  • responding during emergencies; and
  • reviewing dam repair plans.

Dams in Wisconsin may be owned by private individuals, municipalities, lake districts or federal agencies. The DNR owns about 300, most of which provide recreational opportunities like fishing, hunting and boating. When recreating around a dam, it’s important to maintain a safe distance and use designated portage areas if one is available. 

The issue of dam safety was not widely recognized until 1889 when the failure of South Fork Dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania claimed more than 2,200 lives resulting in the worst dam failure in United States history. National Dam Safety Awareness Day was established to commemorate this tragic failure and encourage people to recognize the responsibility to maintain safe, operational dams.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates that the cost to rehabilitate the nation's non-federal high hazard dams, or those whose failure could cause loss of life, exceeds $157 billion. Rehabilitation is an integral part of maintaining or improving the safety of dams. The DNR provides dam repair and removal grants to assist owners with making their dams safer. 

If you own a dam and have questions or concerns about its status, contact

For more information regarding your local risk, your role in dam safety and the benefits and impacts of dams, visit the DNR dam safety webpage.