Dams in Kentucky

Kentucky Dam and Levee Hazard

Dams provide opportunities and benefits for most of the residents of the commonwealth.  While they can pose risks, they can also be economic drivers, provide recreational and infrastructure opportunities and create some of the most scenic landscapes in the country.

Dam and levee failure poses some of the most significant potential losses to flooding in the Commonwealth. 

Link to KDOW’s Dam Safety webpage

KY’s Dam Safety Program: The Basics for the Layperson: Marilyn Thomas & Beth Harrod, KDOW

~Presented at the 2023 KAMM Conference


KDOW Oversees Dam Management in KY

Kentucky has an abundance of natural water resources that provide opportunities for residents from recreation to providing drinking water.  You can’t drive far in the state without coming across one of Kentucky’s abundant natural water resources.

On top of 90,000 miles of rivers and streams here, there are more than 1,000 dams that serve many purposes for the citizens of the commonwealth of Kentucky.

The Kentucky Division of Water (DOW) has the job of managing, protecting and upgrading the quality of the commonwealth’s water resources, and as part of that mission the Division of Water’s Dam Safety Program oversees more than 950 dams in the program.

Dams have several benefits.  They provide pools that provide drinking water, are used for flood control, recreation, wildlife habitat and power generation. But they also pose risks.

When a body of water is pooled by creating a dam, there is an inherent risk involved for infrastructure, people or property who may be in the flood path of that water if the dam isn’t properly maintained.  While dam failures are rare, they do happen.  And without proper risk management, the consequences of a dam failure, however unlikely, can be devastating.

Most dams aren’t owned by the government, but do fall under government regulatory authority.  That means private dam owners are responsible for maintenance, repairs and ensuring the public, property and infrastructure that may be associated with their dam all remains safe.  Dam rehabilitation projects commonly range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per dam; costs that may place a huge burden on dam owners, highlighting the need for proper dam maintenance and upkeep.

Division of Water Dam Safety and Floodplain Compliance staff periodically inspect regulated dams – approximately 300 dams each year.  If deficiencies are found, dam owners are required to correct them in close coordination with the Division.  Where deficiencies remain, enforcement action is sometimes required to ensure proper safety requirements, maintenance, or modification.

Kentucky Owns Some Dams

The DOW manages the State-owned Dam Repair Program. Kentucky’s budget sets out funding to manage, plan, and execute projects to upgrade and rehabilitate dams owned by state agencies.  Past projects include:

  • Guist Creek Lake Dam – Shelby County
  • Greenbo Lake Dam – Greenup County
  • Kincaid Creek Dam – Pendleton County
  • Lake Beshear – Caldwell County
  • Lake McNeeley – Jefferson County

  • Scenic Lake Dam at John J. Audubon State Park – Henderson County.  Phase I is complete – The project stabilized and strengthen the dam’s foundation to protect against failure due to earthquakes.  Phase II – The existing spillway will be replaced to provide capacity to pass the design flood (approximately 28 inches of rain in 6 hours).
  • Bullock Pen – Boone/Grant Counties.  The dam’s spillway will be replaced so that the dam can pass the design flood.

Dam Inspections

Staff with Dam Safety and Floodplain Management periodically inspect all dams on the inventory as long as they continue to operate (approximately 300 dams each year). Each inspection starts with a complete file review in the office to note any identified deficiencies and to become familiar with hydrologic evaluations. The inspector then performs the field evaluation.

In the field, the inspector conducts a complete visual inspection. Surveys are completed for dams with missing measurements. Photographs help provide a permanent record of observations. Following the inspection, a letter and report are provided to the owner listing the observations and, if needed, deficiencies and remedial measures required. Enforcement action is sometimes required to ensure proper dam maintenance or modification.

The Environmental Response Team takes emergency action if a structure is in danger of failing and poses a threat to life or may cause serious property damage. The section is equipped with siphon pipes and pumps to help an owner drain water from a reservoir in an emergency. KRS 151.297 empowers the Energy and Environment Cabinet to take emergency action if an owner abandons a dam or refuses to take necessary action. To report an Environmental Emergency, call 1-800-928-2380 or 502-564-2380, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

This same staff also processes between 100 and 200 floodplain cases each year.

For more information see Undertand your Flood Risk.

Dam Removal on Slate Creek

November 2017

The Owingsville Slate Creek Dam Removal Project (in Bath County) is a collaborative effort by the City of Owingsville, Ohio River Foundation (ORF), and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to restore flow and habitat for the fish and wildlife of Slate Creek. ORF successfully obtained requisite funding from USFWS to assist the city with removing this dam.

Before removal, this 60 year old dam prevents the natural flow of water through the creek and impedes fish movement on Slate Creek. The dam no longer serves any purpose and also poses a danger to public recreation. 



State Hazard Mitigation Plan – Dam Risk Assessment

The State Hazard Mitigation Plan outlines the Dam Risk Assessment. Link for more information and maps.