Practice makes perfect as Corps conducts emergency exercise at Martis Creek Lake

Published Aug. 1, 2014
Martis Creek Lake on July 30, 2014

Martis Creek Lake on July 30, 2014

It’s the middle of winter and the Truckee region is seeing major storms pass through when an emergency situation crops up at Martis Creek Dam and Lake. The situation isn’t dire, but over the next two hours it will ramp up to one where failure of the dam and major flooding into Reno, Nev., is imminent and the time to move into action is now.

The scenario is pretty straightforward. Preparing for it isn’t quite so easy.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District hosted a tabletop emergency exercise for Martis Creek Dam July 30 to bring together representatives from more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies to discuss what their response would and should be during an emergency.

For the Corps’ high risk dams such as Martis Creek Dam, emergency response exercises have become an annual event, with tabletop discussions alternating with full-on functional simulations to make sure everyone is on the same page during an emergency response at the Corps’ dams.

“The tabletop and functional exercises test the effectiveness of our emergency action plans, which tell who we should communicate with and when we should begin that communication, and outline the appropriate steps in response to a dam safety issue or situation,” said Joe Forbis, director of the Sacramento District’s emergency exercises.

For Martis Creek Dam, the group analyzed an escalating scenario involving a flood resulting from severe rain pouring onto a large snow pack in the mountains. From there the scenario intensifies with a security breach putting the dam in danger of damage and failure. While the two scenarios happening simultaneously may not seem like a realistic event, it allows as many agencies as possible to understand and role play potential emergency responses in a single scenario. 

The implications for an emergency at Martis Creek Dam are unique in that the dam is located in California, but the consequences of a dam failure would be felt downstream in Nevada.

“There are some interesting dynamics here, and that’s why it’s so good that we all get together to discuss [our emergency response],” said Aaron Kenneston, emergency response manager for Washoe County, Nev.

For participants of the exercises at Martis Creek Dam and the other Sacramento District dams, Forbis echoed that continued practice is important to be ready if disaster strikes. 

“It’s important that we keep up with emergency response planning and do it effectively because when you go into an emergency situation without knowing what you’re going to do next, that’s when people can start to not effectively deal with the situation or keep the public as safe as possible,” he said.

The Sacramento District has completed two exercises at district dams so far this year and plans to conduct four more at dams throughout California in the next three months. The district will continue to conduct the exercises regularly depending on the safety rating of each dam, Forbis said.