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4-Step Guide to a Successful Dam and Levee Risk Analysis Workshop

4-Step Guide to a Successful Dam and Levee Risk Analysis Workshop

September 18, 2023
Stacy Vorster, PE, and Elizabeth Landowski, PE

Part two of a two-part series, this blog applies risk assessment concepts from part one to guide you in performing a risk analysis workshop.

In part one of our “Dam and Levee Ownership – Risky Business” blog series, we discussed “Understanding Risk-Informed Decision-Making for Dams and Levees,” which covered essential risk assessment concepts to help dam and levee owners make data-driven decisions about their assets. In part two of the two-part series, we delve into applying those concepts to guide you in performing a successful risk analysis workshop.

The risk analysis process involves four crucial steps:

  1. Planning.
  2. Executing the workshop.
  3. Documenting the findings.
  4. Establishing a path forward.

Step 1: Plan

Adequate preparation is essential to conducting a successful risk analysis workshop. This first step involves concentrating on the risk management framework’s risk analysis component, starting with assembling the risk analysis team, typically led by an owner’s representative. The team may consist of owner representatives from engineering, operations, and management; independent subject matter experts (SME); and facilitators.

The team’s size can vary depending on the risk analysis level. A screening-level risk analysis may only require a three-person team, including a dam or levee safety engineer (representing the owner), an SME acting as a facilitator, and an additional engineer to record the discussion.

For higher-level analysis like semi-quantitative risk analysis (SQRA) or quantitative risk analysis (QRA), the team will likely need:

  • Multiple SMEs.
  • Operators.
  • A large group of engineers.
  • The owner’s management personnel.
  • A facilitation team with multiple co-facilitators and recorders.

SMEs, including engineers, geologists, operators, and economists, bring diverse expertise encompassing various areas relevant to the analysis. Their experience and knowledge are crucial in estimating the likelihood of failure for different potential failure modes (PFM).

Regulators and owners might also participate as observers during the process. Though not mandatory, observers play an essential role in the long-term adoption of risk-informed decision-making in the dam and levee industry. Risk assessments familiarize individuals with the process and objectives of incorporating risk into designs, operations, and maintenance.

Once the team is formed and the necessary data is available, the owner distributes the project information to participants to familiarize them with the facilities and assist with informing their risk estimates.

While SMEs begin the data review process, the facilitation team prepares templates and forms to support various aspects of the workshop, such as screening PFMs, estimating risks, and documenting the findings. Proper upfront preparation of these templates streamlines the workshop and reporting process.

Workshop logistics involve more than finding a suitable location; they include considering the workshop format, scheduling breaks to prevent burnout, and ensuring necessary equipment and materials are available. They also include setting the workshop up for success by arranging a functional meeting space, providing food and water, and facilitating introductions among participants.

Adequate planning and preparation set the foundation for a successful risk workshop and improve efficiency by reducing downtime spent on document retrieval and real-time coordination.

Step 2: Execute the Workshop

With the scope determined, the team assembled, logistics sorted, and data collected and reviewed, it’s time to conduct the risk analysis workshop.

The workshop commences with a potential failure modes analysis (PFMA). This process starts with summary project presentations. Then, the team identifies candidate PFMs, screens them to determine inclusion or exclusion, and develops the selected PFMs further. During PFM development, the team describes each failure mode and identifies factors that influence its likelihood.

Following the PFMA, the team continues to refine and screen the PFMs to determine if they contribute to the overall project risk as they progress through the risk characterization process. Characterizing the risk entails estimating the likelihood of failure and potential adverse consequences under different loading conditions (static, flood, seismic, and operational). The SMEs and owner’s representatives estimate based on the best available information.

For each significant PFM, the team will either describe their uncertainty or illustrate uncertainty on the risk matrix. In screening-level and SQRA analyses, confidence is estimated qualitatively. For QRAs, estimators categorize risk based on their high, low, and best values for the likelihood of failure and potential consequences. Monte Carlo analysis is then used to display the distribution of possible scenarios and visualize uncertainty.

For each PFM, workshop participants brainstorm potential risk reduction measures and dam safety management actions that could reduce uncertainty or mitigate the identified risks. These measures include implementing permanent remediation solutions, improving surveillance and monitoring, enhancing the emergency action plan, or conducting follow-up studies and investigations.

Step 3: Document the Findings

Once these elements are documented for each PFM, the results are portrayed using visual tools that establish a common understanding among engineers, management, and other stakeholders. Risks are typically plotted on an f-N chart, with the likelihood of failure on the Y-axis and potential incremental life loss (or other consequence category) on the X-axis. Lines of equal risk, calculated as average annual life loss, are diagonal, with risk increasing as we move toward the upper right quadrant of the matrix.

A sample f-N chart details risk as a combination of the potential life loss and likelihood of failure.

After the workshop, the team shares significant findings and understandings related to data availability, specific facility components, previous analyses quality, and the risk analysis process. The facilitation team captures the team’s comments and prepares a comprehensive risk analysis report.

The report summarizes the analyses performed to date and the risk workshop process and portrays the overall project risks. Multiple risk matrices may be provided detailing the potential harm to life safety to the population at risk, environmental or economic impacts to the surrounding areas, and financial impacts to the owner.

It’s important to note that risk workshops generate risk reports and may identify the need for additional analyses, which should be documented in the report. However, detailed studies and evaluations may occur outside the workshop, requiring more time and resources.

Step 4: Establish a Path Forward

The risk analysis of dams and levees culminates in documenting the workshop results and risk estimation. However, the process doesn’t end there. Risk management calls for the continuous monitoring and evaluation of the project risks to maintain dam and levee safety.

Depending on the workshop’s outcomes, uncertainty or data gaps might require further investigation or monitoring. In some cases, if the risk assessment indicates potential harm, it’s best to initiate risk reduction measures rather than conducting additional analyses or investigations. The workshop might also reveal the need to reduce a PFM’s risk to as low as reasonably practicable using risk reduction measures, ranging from adjusting monitoring protocols to rehabilitating the project.

Lastly, effective risk communication is vital throughout the process. Properly communicating potential hazards and risks and their implications allows operators to take the necessary risk reduction actions. It is crucial to provide the relevant stakeholders with the information they need to make informed decisions.

By performing risk assessments of levees and dams at various levels, owners can better understand potential risks, prioritize actions, and allocate resources effectively. Proper planning and thorough data analysis are essential for successful risk workshops, and transparent risk communication is equally vital in informing decision-makers. Ultimately, the goal is continuously assessing and reducing risks to protect lives, property, and the environment.


Our dam and levee safety team includes some of the nation’s leading risk analysis and management experts. To continue the conversation, reach out to us. Or, participate in our free, on-demand webinar, “Dam and Levee Ownership – Risky Business,” on which this blog is based, and earn a professional development hour.


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