A little over 50 years ago, knocks sounded
on the doors of Baldwin Hills, California,
residents. The local dam was leaking—they
had to evacuate immediately. Four hours
after the earthen dam first showed signs
of failure, it split. Two hundred fifty million
gallons of drinking water poured out of the
reservoir. Five people lost their lives; others
were dramatically rescued via helicopter.
The water, which left a square mile of mud
and debris behind, destroyed or damaged
at least 250 homes.
While the disaster was not the first high-profile dam failure in California history (the
St. Francis dam failure in 1928 killed an estimated 400–600 people), it was the first time
that such an event was broadcast live on
television. Together, those failures, as well
as the near failure of the Lower San Fernando
Dam during an earthquake in 1971, shaped
the development of California’s dam safety
program. It now serves as the model for other
states and is deemed the “gold standard” by
the Association of State Dam Safety Officials’
executive director, Lori Spragens.
In Baldwin Hills, settling of the area
along the weak zone of an inactive earthquake fault line caused the failure. David
Gutierrez, P.E., chief of the California Division of Safety of Dams, explains that nearby
oil operations could have been the underlying reason for the land subsidence but the
official investigation did not firmly reach
But the disaster also brought attention
to the need for offstream reservoirs to be
brought under the division’s jurisdiction,
and legislation after the failure did just
that. Gutierrez explains that Baldwin Hills
demonstrated that failure of water storage
facilities located within cities can be just
as catastrophic as failure of those located
at water sources.
California’s dam safety program,
launched in 1928, is one of the oldest in the
country. It is also the largest in the country
in terms of budget and employees, with 49
civil engineers in the division plus geologists and administrative staff.
California has emphasized dam safety
for several reasons, says Gutierrez. One is
that the state is the most populous in the
nation; hundreds of thousands of people
may live downstream of a dam. In addition,
California stores water for summer irrigation, creating the need for huge dams. And
the state’s high potential for earthquakes
adds safety complexities.
Despite these factors, the dam safety
chief says his division has to continually
remind the legislature and the public
of the importance of dam safety, especially as the office works to make failures
just a memory. As of 2003, the state’s
general fund no longer helps finance the
program—it is now fully funded through
annual and construction fees paid by dam
The California division, which contributed to a model dam safety program developed by the Association of State Dam Safety
Officials (ASDSO) and sponsored by the
Federal Emergency Management Agency
(FEMA), tries to inspect every dam every
year. Gutierrez realizes that not every state
has the resources to do that, but he says
waiting longer increases the cost of repairs.
The PE says that nationally, dam safety
has come a long way in the last decade or
two, but “we can’t lose focus.” In 2013, the
American Society of Civil Engineers gave
dams in the country a grade of D, a rating
that ASDSO participated in. Spragens notes
that a lot of state dam safety programs are
In addition to expressing concerns about
deficient dams, the organization is paying
attention to the number of high hazard
dams (those with potential for fatality if a
dam fails), which is growing as people move
into downstream areas.
ASDSO is pushing for the reauthorization of the National Dam Safety Program.
FEMA operates this national coordination
program, which also provides grants to
states. “We are really encouraging—more
than encouraging—all of Congress to get
[the Water Resources and Reform Development Act] passed so the safety program
can be put back in place,” says Spragens.
“We have a vision that all dams will be
safe in the US,” she says.
Dam Failures Created California’s
‘Gold Standard’ Safety Program
State’s program offers model as the number of high hazard dams increases nationwide.
THE FAILURE OF THE BALDWIN HILLS DAM IN 1963 WAS ONE OF THE KEY EVENTS THAT HELPED SHAPE CALIFORNIA’S DAM SAFETY PROGRAM.