Dam Safety

For CDA Members 

Dams are complex structures with many technical uncertainties, and they involve risk just as they provide benefits. Safety can be threatened by the processes of ageing, natural events and new threats, even if the dam was built using accepted good practices of the day.

What is a Dam?

dam is a barrier constructed for the retention of water, water containing any other substance, fluid waste, or tailings, provided the barrier is capable of impounding at least 30,000 m3 of liquid and is at least 2.5 m high. Height is measured vertically to the top of the barrier (i) from the natural bed of the stream or watercourse at the downstream toe of the barrier, in the case of a barrier across a stream or watercourse; or (ii) from the lowest elevation at the outside limit of the barrier, in the case of a barrier that is not across a stream or watercourse.

Generally CDA uses the term dam to include appurtenances and systems incidental to, necessary for, or connected with the barrier. Furthermore, the definition may be expanded to include dams less than 2.5 m high or with an impoundment capacity of less than 30,000 m3 if the consequences of dam operation or failure are likely to be unacceptable to the public, such as dams that create hydraulic conditions posing a danger to the public; dams with erodible foundations that, if breached, could lower the reservoir by more than 2.5 m; or dams retaining contaminated substances.

Dam safety typically refers to the protection of the public and environment from the effects of dam failure, as well as release of any or all of the retained fluids behind a dam. Public safety addresses hazards to the public, created by the presence or operation of a dam, but not associated with structural failure of the dam or with passage of floods.

Committee and Working Groups

The Canadian Dam Association (CDA) has the vision of being the authoritative source for dam safety practices in Canada. We place a strong focus on helping dam owners, engineers, regulators and other stakeholders understand and meet their responsibilities. We provide a collaborative forum for sharing knowledge and advancing the standards of practice.

Several working groups have been established under the oversight of the Dam Safety Committee addressing topics such as risk-informed decision-making, public safety, Dam Safety Reviews, and emergency management.

The cross-Canada membership and the affiliation with the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) ensure a solid basis for defining due diligence. CDA has strong representation on the ICOLD Committee on Dam Safety, through Dr. P.A. (Andy) Zielinski as Chair, and Dr. D.N.D. (Des) Hartford as a co-opted member. Their leadership extends to international collaborative research on complex dam safety topics.


CDA's Dam Safety Guidelines established the role of the CDA in guiding good practice for dams in Canada. The "CDA Guidelines" have become recognized as one of the best available references for dam safety and they are widely used across Canada and around the world. In addition, Technical Bulletins supplementthe Guidelines by suggesting methodologies and procedures for use by qualified professionals.

CDA's Dam Safety Committee is responsible for stewardship of the Guidelines and Technical Bulletins - review, revision, quality assurance, stakeholder engagement, resolution of differences of opinion, and communication. The Committee also provides expert guidance to the Board of Directors on development and oversight of programs, projects and publications related to dam safety.

See the PUBLICATIONS tab for more information.

Professional Development

As a member society of the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC), CDA is recognized as a quality provider of professional development to the engineering community.

Dam safety is one of the major themes at CDA events including the Annual Conference and workshops. See the Events tab for details of currently planned events.

CDA is also open to arranging customized or local programs, workshops, and speakers. Please contact the Executive Director if your organization is interested in collaboration.