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Dam Safety Awareness Day: How Does a Changing Climate Impact Dams? USDA Scientists are Looking for Answers

How Does a Changing Climate Impact Dams?  The Agriculture Research Service is Looking for the Answers

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How do the extreme weather changes resulting from climate change impact the condition of our nation’s aging dams? Do sudden shifts from extreme precipitation events to flash droughts put this infrastructure at risk?  These are the types of questions researchers like Dr. Sherry Hunt, a research leader and acting location coordinator at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Agroclimate and Hydraulic Engineering Research Unit in Stillwater, Oklahoma, are attempting to answer.

“Changes in weather patterns are affecting the levels of the permanent pools in our reservoirs across the country, including those that were built under the USDA Upstream Flood Control Program,” Dr. Hunt said. “We need the best information on how this is happening and what impact it is having.”

Originally established in 1940 as a partnership between ARS and Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University), the ARS Agroclimate and Hydraulics Engineering Research Unit (Unit) is the primary lab in the ARS system for developing improved dam structure design and providing information on how to maintain and rehabilitate aging water retention structures.  With nearly 12 thousand USDA upstream flood control dams nationwide, two-thirds of which are past their original design life, Dr. Hunt believes the research provided by this facility is more important than ever.

“As our climate continues to change and we see more and more volatility in our weather, we potentially see more pressure on these structures.  That makes the work we do that much more critical.” Dr. Hunt said.

One area of focus by the team at the Unit has been the development of small, affordable sensors such as meteorological stations and water quality and quantity monitors for installation in and around aging upstream flood control structures.  These stations would monitor conditions such as soil moisture levels, reservoir water levels, wind speed, rainfall, humidity, and barometric pressure to provide more up-to-date and spatially dense data to our partners and dam monitoring alert systems. These alert systems are designed to help improve dam safety and provide early warnings when a dam is in danger of overtopping or breaching.

“Right now, there are some great dam monitoring tools that are available to local watershed sponsors and their partners in State and Federal Government,” Dr. Hunt said. “Unfortunately, most of these tools were designed with a ‘static’ pool of water in mind.  This means that they may not have a full picture of what is happening in a reservoir when we see dramatic shifts from drought to heavy rain events. By positioning small, affordable meteorological stations and water monitoring sensors in and around these structures, we can help better inform these systems on what is happening to these dams in real time. We also can help monitor water quality issues, especially those like blue-green algae blooms that are drastically impacted by rapid decreases or increases in water levels.”

While still in the development stage, Dr. Hunt and her team are hopeful that with the continued collaborations and partnerships she has established with the ARS Partnerships in Data Innovations, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Universities around the country, the low-cost sensors will soon start to be deployed around hydraulic structures to provide more protection for people and property. These rich spatial and temporal real-world data sets will provide critical data for new dam design and drive the next generation of dam research.  

“The more information we have, the better job we can do in helping ensure that this critical infrastructure continues to provide protection from extreme flood events,” Dr. Hunt said. — By Clay Pope, USDA’s Southern Plains Climate Hub.


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This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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