Operate and Maintain a Dam

D​am Ownership – Operating and Maintaining a Dam

Dam owners are responsible to regularly inspect your dam; maintain your dam in a safe condition; obtain training to ensure knowledge of current laws, regulations and industry trends; and to become knowledgeable about the risks and liabilities associated with dam ownership. You could be found liable should your structure fail and cause loss of life or damage to property of others. 

The following materials have been developed by the Dam Safety Division or collected from other sources and reflect a portion of the body of knowledge that dam owners are expected to obtain.

Maryland Dam Operation, Maintenance, and Inspection Manual Template

This template manual provides a framework for owners to compile pertinent information on their dam, including regular maintenance, inspection and operation expectations, record-keeping policies, permits and other materials. It is intended that owners will modify the template to meet their specific needs and the conditions at their dam. Download the Operation, Maintenance, and Inspection Manual Template.

ASDSO Dam Ownership Fact Sheets

ASDSO has compiled a number of fact sheets that provide guidance on specific issues many dam owners face. Download the Dam Owner Fact Sheet Booklet.

FEMA Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments

This “Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments” was developed for dam owners, inspectors and other people as a quick reference when assessing dams and impoundments. Download the Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments.

ASDSO Webinar: Introduction to Inspecting Dams for Owners and Operators

This archived webinar has been made available free of charge by the Association of State Dam Safety Officials and introduces the basics of performing a dam inspection. Access the Introduction to Inspecting Dams for Owners and Operators Webinar.

Owners Liability

The dam owner is liable for the damages resulting from a dam's mis-operation or failure that would result in a sudden release of water downstream. In assessing the legal liability for a dam failure, there are two basic theories that are used, strict liability and negligence.

Operate and Maintain a Dam

​The theory of strict liability essentially imposes liability as a risk of doing business and is derived from the old English case of Rylands v. Fletcher. In this case, a dam and reservoir were constructed by the defendants on a parcel of property with the owner's permission. A shaft gave way and caused the impounded water to destroy the plaintiff's property. The court ruled for the plaintiff, holding that when one brings onto his land, and collects and keeps there anything likely to do mischief, if it escapes, and it is a non- natural use of the land, he must keep it at his peril. The rule is that a defendant is liable when he damages another by a thing or activity unduly dangerous, in light of the place and its surroundings.

The concept of strict liability has been extended widely to activities that are considered abnormally dangerous. The basis for this is the risk of harm and potential magnitude of that harm. Factors to be considered in strict liability include the degree of risk, the potential gravity of harm should the risk materialize, the exercise of reasonable care, whether or not the activity is one of common usage, the appropriateness of the activity to the locality, and its value to the community.

The alternative theory of liability is one of negligence, which is the most commonly utilized cause of action in tort litigation. Negligence is generally defined in terms of failure to exercise the standard of care of a reasonable person under similar circumstances. This standard in turn is based on the reasonable foreseeability of the risk. It is important to emphasize that the ultimate question though is, whether in light of that forseeability, how a reasonable person would have acted taking into account the potential magnitude of harm and the alternatives available. Thus, negligence can consist of a failure to act, or the failure to act in a reasonable manner.

In Maryland, the General Assembly has added statutory requirements on top of the Common law strict liability and negligence doctrines. Construction and repair of dams require state permits and those permits contain specific conditions for maintenance. Size, location, design, and public safety are all issues addressed by State law and regulations. The Administration may order structures built without permission to be drained or removed.

Professor Denis Binder (Chapman University, Dale E. Fowler School of Law) has prepared the following documents that further explain the concepts of liability as it pertains to dam owners. Download "Legal Liability for Dam Failures."​

Download “Emergency Action Plans, A Legal and Practical Blueprint."​


Contact Information

For more information, you may call us at (410) 537-3538 or reach us at our mailing address:

Dam Safety Division
Water Management Administration
Maryland Department of the Environment

1800 Washington Boulevard, Ste. 440
Baltimore, Maryland 21230-1708​