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The purpose of this brochure is to inform you, the prospective dam owner, of the requirements for building a dam in Tennessee. Under the Tennessee Safe Dams Act, a dam is defined as any structure that is at least 20 feet high or that can impound at least 30 acre-feet of water.

The responsibility of building and maintaining a dam rests solely with the owner. As a dam owner, you are liable for the water stored behind your dam. A dam failure, resulting in an uncontrolled release of the reservoir, can have a devastating effect on people and property downstream. Additionally, a dam failure could mean loss of a vital resource to you. Therefore, proper construction, operation, maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of a dam are key elements in preventing a failure, limiting your liability, and maintaining your water resource.

Construction or alteration of a dam may require permits from the Safe Dams Section (SDS) of the Division of Water Supply and the Natural Resources Section (NRS) of the Division of Water Pollution Control. Application for these permits can be made by completing an application (CN-0821) and submitting it to the address on the form with the appropriate fees. These permits are discussed in greater detail in the following section.

You may also need to apply for a Section 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and/or a Section 26-A permit from TVA. The addresses and telephone numbers for these agencies are listed in the "Where Can I Get More Information?" section. Information is also provided about storm water runoff requirements under "ARAP and Storm Water Runoff Considerations".


You will probably need to obtain one or more permits to construct your dam. The key points to consider as you plan to construct a dam are summarized in the following checklist format.

  1. State law requires that a professional engineer design your dam to insure its proper construction and operation. There are many factors that affect the safety of a dam, not all of which are obvious to the layman, and a qualified engineer will design the dam to function safely for many years.

  2. Your engineer should contact the Safe Dams Section (SDS). Our staff will meet the engineer and/or the owner to review the site and establish a Hazard Potential Category (HPC) for the dam. It is best (though not required) to do this prior to drawing up plans, since some design requirements vary with the HPC. Staff from the Division of Water Pollution Control will also visit the site at that time to determine if an Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit (ARAP) is needed (see "ARAP Considerations").

  3. Apply for a construction permit and an ARAP permit. At this point, you must submit an application form, plans review fee, and engineering report upon which the dam design is based. Application forms are available from any TDEC office. The fee varies from $300 - $500 depending on the height of the dam. The ARAP fee schedule is given in the following section.

  4. The SDS will review the plans, etc., and work with your engineer to resolve any questions about the design. The application will also be forwarded to the Natural Resources Section (NRS) to determine if an ARAP permit is needed. NRS staff will contact your engineer with any questions or concerns they may have.

  5. When the plans and specifications are accept-able, the SDS will issue you a construction permit good for one year, contingent upon receiving an ARAP permit if needed. Construction of the dam must be started during this one-year period, but does not have to be completed during that period.

  6. The NRS will issue or deny an ARAP permit based upon their regulations. This process can take 3- 4 months or longer, since the NRS has to publish public notice of the application and consider all comments. If public interest is sufficient, a public hearing may also be required.

  7. Upon completion of the dam, SDS staff will inspect it. Your engineer must submit a written certification that the dam was built according to the approved plans and specifications. You will then receive an operating permit and can begin impounding water.

  8. The SDS will perform periodic inspections of your dam as required under the Safe Dams Act. Normally, inspections will be every 1, 2, or 3 years, depending on the HPC.


An Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit (ARAP) must be obtained when the dam that is being built impounds water on a stream or creek. The ARAP program is administered by the Natural Resources Section of the Division of Water Pollution Control (DWPC). Under the provisions of ARAP there must be allowances made for the continuous flow of water downstream during and after construction of the dam. Considerations should be given to minimize the disruption of the water's natural flow patterns. ARAP also monitors the control of pollution during construction of the dam. Pursuant to an ARAP, a judgment is made of the effect the dam construction and final presence will have on pre-existing aquatic life. Long lasting environmental impacts are considered under ARAP, such as the use of sulfur and iron bearing borrow material that can have a negative impact on the environment as a long-term leaching source. A fee of $2,500 is assessed for projects that impact the stream for 1,000 feet or more. A fee of $1,000 is assessed for projects that will affect stream waters of less than 1,000 feet. Finally, there is a charge of $50 for a private farm residential projects regardless of stream length.

If construction of your lake and dam will disturb one acre or more of land, you must control erosion from storm water runoff and submit a "Notice of Intent" to perform construction activity prior to starting construction. Approval is generally automatic and an individual permit is not required. Additional information can be obtained from the DWPC at the telephone number and address in the "Where Can I Get More Information?" section.


Dams are assigned hazard potential categories that reflect the threat to life and property in the event of a failure. These categories are high (1), significant (2), and low (3). Safety inspections of dams are performed by SDS staff every one, two, and three years, respectively, for these categories of dams. Inspection fees also vary by category, the highest being $250 for a high hazard dam. A plans review fee that ranges from $300 to $500, depending on the height of the dam, is assessed when a new dam is to be built in Tennessee.


Certain classes of dams are exempt from regulation under the Safe Dams Act. The main exemption is for "farm ponds". Farm ponds are defined in the regulations as "...any impoundment used only for providing water for agriculture and domestic purposes such as livestock and poultry watering, irrigation of crops, recreation, and conservation, for the owner or occupant of the farm, his family, and invited guests, but does not include any impoundment for which the water, or privileges or products of the water, are available to the general public." A farm pond is exempt from the Safe Dams Act, but may NOT be exempt from other permitting requirements such as ARAP, etc.


The Safe Dams Section of the Division of Water Supply in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is responsible for carrying out the requirements of the Safe Dams Act of 1973. The duties of the Safe Dams Section include:

  • Maintaining an accurate inventory of the dams within our state.

  • Reviewing plans for new dam construction.

  • Periodically inspecting all regulated dams within our state.

  • Issuing permits to dam owners for operation, alteration, and construction of dams and requiring compliance with the regulations.

Dam owners who fail to comply with the law are subject to fines and prosecution.


To get more information on dams and water pollution control issues, contact one of the offices listed below.

Division of Water Supply
401 Church Street
6th Floor, L&C Tower
Nashville, TN 37243-1549
(615) 532 - 0191

Division of Water Pollution Control
401 Church Street
6th Floor, L&C Annex
Nashville, TN 37243-1534
(615) 532 - 0625

Statewide Environmental Assistance Centers

You may also visit the TDEC website at


Nashville District Corps of Engineers
Regulatory Branch
P. O. Box 1070
Nashville, TN 37202-1070
(615) 736-5181

Mr. Robert L. Curtis
Natural Resources Building
Norris, TN 37828
Phone: (423) 632-1552

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is committed to the principles of equal opportunity, equal access and affirmative action. Contact the TDEC EEO/AA Coordinator or the ADA Coordinator on the 21st Floor L&C Tower, 401 Church Street, Nashville, Tennessee 37243, 615-532-0103 for further information. Hearing impaired callers may use the Tennessee Relay Service (1-800-848-0298).