20 Years of Dam Rehab, How We Made It Work in Virginia

Mathew Lyons, PE, State Conservation Engineer, USDA NRCS

Alica Ketchem, PE, Environmental/Planning Engineer (retired), USDA NRCS

Virginia NRCS has rehabilitated 13 of its 150 watershed structures since the Rehabilitation Act of 2000.  An additional three structures have completed Environmental Assessments.  Rehab needs included state regulatory actions, such as requiring an increase in structure capacity brought on by a change in hazard classification, vegetated ASW integrity, material filter incompatibility, and riser stability for earthquake loads.

A variety of approaches have been used to plan, design and construct projects based on funding constraints, NRCS staffing levels and Sponsor capacity.  Virginia NRCS prepared the watershed plan supplement (EA or EE) with five Sponsors for the 16 projects.  Local Sponsors provided A&E services for planning engineering on six projects.  Virginia NRCS provided design and construction oversight for seven projects with A&E assistance on two of these.  Local Sponsors provided A&E services for design and construction oversight on six projects.

Virginia NRCS started in the rehab business in late 2001.  Many lessons have been learned about what it takes to be successful through the practical application of the rehab program. The most successful projects have several factors in common for both NRCS and the Sponsor.  These factors include

  • Professional relationships built on common goals and mutual trust.
  • Common understanding of why rehab is needed along with a shared understanding of project success.
  • Commitment of adequate staff time and financial resources.

The rehab process takes time and a lot of effort before an application is submitted.  Sponsors need to have a firm understanding of their responsibilities for funding, staff time, public participation, landrights, A&E services, etc.  In many cases, NRCS needs to build relationships with the Sponsor to establish lines of communication and trust.  This process can take many months or, in some cases, years before an application for assistance is submitted.

Once the rehab process is started, the real effort of communication, collaboration, community involvement, and technical work begins.  Projects tend to finish the way they start so it is imperative that both NRCS and the Sponsor are committed to making the process work from the outset.  Each project has its own unique set of challenges but the factors for success are always the same.


Author Bio

Mathew Lyons, PE is the State Conservation Engineer for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Richmond, Virginia, with oversight for technical standards and statewide management and delivery of engineering technical services to support agency programs.

He began his NRCS career with SCS in West Virginia shortly after receiving his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Virginia Tech in 1989. Mathew’s work in West Virginia laid a strong foundation for his future watershed project activities. He moved to Michigan in 1992 to serve as an Area Engineer and Project Engineer with responsibilities for Farm Bill, watershed and EPA Superfund projects.

Mathew returned to Virginia in 2001 and has been providing specialized technical assistance for earthen dam planning, design, construction and rehabilitation for the past 20 years. He has also served on numerous national agency and state level teams to address dam safety and conservation-related watershed issues.