Dam Safety Program


Dam Safety Program

The Iowa DNR is responsible for the state's dam safety program. The program involves the review and approval for the construction of new dams, maintaining an inventory of existing dams that meet minimum size criteria and the periodic inspection of dams that pose a significant risk to downstream life and property. Currently there are approximately 4000 dams on the state's dam inventory.

Listed below is information on when dams require permits, design references, and owner responsibilities.

If you have questions about an existing pond or dam, or are planning to construct a dam, feel free to contact us:

Casey Welty

Information about Safety at Low Head Dams and Low Head Dam Mitigation can be found on our Canoeing and Kayaking page.
Dam Safety

A DNR dam construction permit may be required to construct a dam, modify an existing dam, drawdown the water level, or remove a dam.

The thresholds for when a Flood Plain Permit from this department is required are outlined in 567 Iowa Administrative Code Chapter 71.3 and are listed below. The thresholds are primarily based on both dam height and water storage volumes. The height of a dam is defined as the vertical distance from the top of the dam to the lowest elevation at the downstream toe of the dam, typically the streambed.

In rural areas:

a. Any dam designed to provide a sum of permanent and temporary storage exceeding 50 acre-feet at the top of dam elevation, or 25 acre-feet if the dam does not have an emergency spillway, and which has a height of 5 feet or more.

b. Any dam designed to provide permanent storage in excess of 18 acre-feet and which has a height of 5 feet or more.

c. Any dam across a stream draining more than 10 square miles.

d. Any dam located within 1 mile of an incorporated municipality, if the dam has a height of 10 feet or more, stores 10 acre-feet or more at the top of dam elevation, and is situated such that the discharge from the dam will flow through the incorporated area.

In urban areas:

Any dam which exceeds the thresholds in 71.3(1) "a," "b" or "d."

Low head dams.

Any low head dam on a stream draining 2 or more square miles in an urban area, or 10 or more square miles in a rural area. For additional information see low head dam guidance documents.

Modifications to existing dams also require permitting:

Modification or alteration of any dam or appurtenant structure beyond the scope of ordinary maintenance or repair, or any change in operating procedures, if the dimensions or effects of the dam exceed the applicable thresholds above. Changes in the spillway height or dimensions of the dam or spillway are examples of modifications for which approval is required.

Estimating storage volumes: 

An acre-foot of water is equal to a one foot depth of water over 1 acre, or also equal to 43560 cubic feet.  The volume of a pond can be estimated by using the following formula:

Normal Pond Storage in acre-feet = (Surface area in acres at normal pool elevation)  X   (max depth in feet at normal pool elevation)   X 0.4

Top of Dam Pond Storage in acre-feet = (Surface area in acres at top of dam elevation)  X   (max depth in feet at top of dam elevation)   X 0.4

Example:    A 4 acre pond is proposed with a 30 foot tall dam, the normal water level is expected to be 5 feet below the top of dam, if water rose to a top of dam elevation it would cover 6 acres (areas can typically be estimated by looked at topographic maps.   We would estimate normal storage at 4 acres x 25 feet x 0.4 = 40 acre-feet.  The flooded pool at top of dam is expected to be 6 acres, we would estimate top of dam storage to be 6 acres x 30 feet x 0.4 = 72 acre-feet.  This pond would need a permit. 

To apply for a dam construction permit visit our joint application page.

If a proposed dam or repairs to an existing dam requires a permit, it must be designed by an engineer.  The engineer will have to provide signed and sealed construction plans and calculations to the Department showing that the proposed dam meets all Department criteria outlined in 567 Iowa Administrative Code Chapters 70-73 (https://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Land-Quality/Flood-Plain-Management/Flood-Plain-Regulations).  Iowa DNR Technical Bulletin No. 16 is referenced by rule and submitted dam designs must meet the technical criteria outlined in this document. 

Iowa DNR Technical Bulletin No. 16, Design Criteria and Guidelines for Iowa Dams

Dams should generally be designed in accordance with national published guidelines and design references such as those published by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Bureau of Reclamation, US Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the National Weather Service.  The following list provides some common references for use in the design of dams. 

  • Earth Dams and Reservoirs TR-60, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Conservation Practice Standard: Pond, Code 378, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
  • Design of Small Dams, US Bureau of Reclamation
  • Technical Manual: Conduits through Embankment Dams, FEMA
  • Filters for Embankment Dams, FEMA
  • NOAA Atlas 14 Precipitation Frequency Atlas of the United States
  • Selected and Accommodating Inflow Design Floods for Dams, FEMA P-94, FEMA
  • Hydrometeorological Report No. 51, Probable Maximum Precipitation Estimates, United States East of the 105th Meridian, NOAA

Other useful references are available from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials

In Iowa, dams are classified according to the downstream damages that would occur if that dam were to fail. The more risk, the higher the standards that have to be met when that dam is constructed or modified. There are 3 dam classifications: High Hazard, Moderate Hazard and Low Hazard. These classifications do not describe the current condition of the dam. High Hazard classification dams have to meet the state's highest level of criteria and are inspected on a 2 year cycle.

Dams are classified as High Hazard when it is located in an area where dam failure may create a serious threat of loss of human life.

A Moderate Hazard Dam is where failure may damage isolated homes or cabins, industrial or commercial buildings, moderately traveled roads, interrupt major utility services, but are without substantial risk of loss of human life. Dams are also classified as Moderate Hazard where the dam and its impoundment are themselves of public importance, such as dams associated with public water supply systems, industrial water supply or public recreation or which are an integral feature of a private development complex.

Low Hazard dams are classified as such where damages from a failure would be limited to loss of the dam, livestock, farm outbuildings, agricultural lands and lesser used roads and where loss of human life is considered unlikely.

Dam owners are responsible for the safety of their dams, this responsibility includes keeping the dam well maintained and repairing deterioration.  Please review the following resources that explain dam owner responsibilities:

Iowa DNR Dam Maintenance Manual ASDSO Dam Owner Liability Brochure ASDSO Resources for Dam Operations and Maintenance Dam Owner Emergency Intervention Toolbox Outlet Works Rehabilitation Guide for Small Dams

Being prepared in the event of an emergency is one of the most important responsibilities of a dam owner. The Federal Dam Safety Guidelines and the National Dam Safety Program Act, passed by Congress in 1996, and reauthorized in 2006, both consider a well-planned and coordinated EAP to be an essential responsibility of the owner.

It has long been established that having an EAP reduces the potential for loss of life downstream of dams. The dam owner can be held responsible and liable for loss of life caused by failure of the dam. Compliance with government or professional standards does not necessarily absolve an owner from liability, but it does establish a standard of care to be used by owners.

The EAP accomplishes three important objectives:

Identifies the area below the dam that would be flooded from a failure,

Establishes lines of communication for the dam owner and emergency response personnel, and

Provides for warnings and evacuations to be conducted by police, fire, and rescue teams.

As the dam owner, you are responsible for developing and maintaining the EAP and for updating it on annual basis. The importance of meeting with your local emergency management agencies at least once a year cannot be overstated. This meeting ensures that everyone understands the EAP, including pre-planned emergency procedures and inundation maps. Once completed, the EAP should be submitted to this office for review and approval.

Emergency Action Planning Resources from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials

Recorded Webinars

Dams 101 and DNR Dam Safety Program

Learn about how dams work, what are the critical parts and features, and how they are regulated in Iowa.  

How Dams Fail and How to Properly Maintain Your Dam  

Learn about common ways that dams fail and how proper maintenance can reduce the risk of failure. 

Dam Ownership, When and How to Hire an Engineer

When do you need to call in an expert?  We’ll discuss when and how to find and hire qualified engineers to help with repairs and design of dams.   

Dam Design and Permitting

This webinar will go into technical engineering design requirements and what’s needed to obtain a permit. We will also discuss upcoming changes to Iowa’s dam safety administrative rules.  

Administrative Rule Updates

to Iowa Administrative Code 567-Chapters 70, 71, 72, and 73
Iowa Department of Natural Resources

The Notice of Intended Action for updates to the Dam Safety Program rules have been approved by the Environmental Protection Commission.  

NOIA - Dam Safety Rules

Public Comment

Any interested person may submit comments concerning this proposed rule making. Written comments in response to this rule making must be received by the Department no later than 4:30 p.m. on July 13.

Comments should be directed to:

Jonathan Garton
Iowa DNR Floodplain and Dam Safety Section
502 E. 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319

Email: jonathan.garton@dnr.iowa.gov

Public Hearing

A public hearing at which persons may present their views orally or in writing will be held by conference call on July 12 from 2-3pm. Persons who wish to attend the conference call should contact Jonathan Garton at jonathan.garton@dnr.iowa.gov. A conference call number will be provided prior to the hearing. Persons who wish to make oral comments at the conference call public hearing must submit a request to Jonathan Garton prior to the hearing to facilitate an orderly hearing.

Electronic Document Retrieval

Scanned Dam Files Index

DNR Document Search Page

Any person may submit their request to inspect public records by submitting their request via our our Iowa Information and Public Records Request Portal.

Iowa Online Dam Inventory

Iowa Online Dam Inventory

The dam safety program maintains a database of dams in the state the meet the thresholds for the National Inventory of Dams.  Click on the link above the access the database.