Catrin Bryan: Advancing Dam Safety on Both Sides of the U.S.-Canada Border
January 4, 2021
Catrin Bryan’s experience in the field of dam safety spans both disciplinary and international boundaries. Currently the director of dam safety at engineering and construction firm McMillen Jacobs Associates, she has also served as the president and vice president of the Canadian Dam Association (CDA) and serves as the Canadian director and as a board member of the Northwest Hydroelectric Association (NWHA). In this interview, Ms. Bryan draws from her wide-ranging experience in business and in professional associations to tell Hydro Leader about the present state of the field of dam safety and the differences between the Canadian and U.S. approaches to the topic.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Catrin Bryan: Because of where I grew up, close to the Peace River in Alberta, I have always had a strong interest in the outdoors and in waterways and dams. Hydropower was a normal part of life with the Bennett Dam so close by, and in many places in Canada we call our electric bill our hydro bill. I received an engineering degree from the University of British Columbia in 1990 and a graduate degree from the University of Calgary. After living and working in Calgary and then abroad for a few years, we settled in Oregon, where I worked for Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) for 10 years, initially as an operation and maintenance engineer and eventually managing EWEB’s generating facilities.
I moved back to Canada in 2011 and began working with McMillen Jacobs Associates, where I still work today. The company afforded me the opportunity to be a contributing author for the American Society of Civil Engineers’ book Monitoring Dam Performance: Instrumentation and Measurements, to contribute to the NWHA, and to serve with the CDA. I had a chance to work on the CDA’s dam safety technical bulletins and training and to serve briefly as the association’s secretary-treasurer. I then chaired the 2017 CDA conference in Kelowna, British Columbia, and I just finished serving as its vice president and then as its president. I also sit on the board of the NWHA, representing the Canadian Northwest, primarily British Columbia.
My current work focuses on dam safety, though I’ve also had a chance to do condition assessments and other hydropower plant–related work. I use everything I have learned over the past 30 years to inform my work in dam safety, including subjects like construction, budgets, staffing, training, outages, operations and maintenance, and design. With the support of our technical team, I’ve performed dam safety work in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, California, Manitoba, Nunavut, Oregon, and Washington. I’m a registered professional engineer in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington and a P.Eng. in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nunavut, and Ontario. I’m grateful to the professional mentors, young and old, whom I’ve worked with over the years. They inspire me, and I truly learn something new from them every day.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about McMillen Jacobs Associates.
Catrin Bryan: Initially, I went to work for a company called McMillen, which was started by Mort and Mara McMillen. They were passionate about technical expertise and actually building what they designed. In 2014, McMillen merged with Jacobs, a company that specialized in tunneling, becoming McMillen Jacobs. The combined company has approximately 500 employees. Our company is a truly integrated design-build company. We have construction crews that build water resources, hydropower facilities, and fish facilities. What drew me to the company was that it gave me lots of flexibility; that it focused on dams, hydropower, and fisheries; and that it could provide life-cycle expertise from design to construction to startup, commissioning, and operations and maintenance.
Hydro Leader: Would you introduce the main elements of dam safety as a field?
Catrin Bryan: I would say that it essentially refers to the science, processes, and organization necessary to ensure that a facility stores and conveys water as intended and keeps the people around and below it safe from dam failure or misoperation. It also considers potential effects on the environmental, economic, and cultural resources below the dam. Dam safety is about making sure your facility safely operates as designed and that there are processes in place to prevent dam failure or safety incidents. That can include everything from having your spillway gates operate in a reliable manner under all design conditions to making sure that you have adequate communications and access. This requires a thorough understanding of design, construction, maintenance, and operation and a knowledge of how systems can fail and what we can do to prevent failure. A team effort is typically required to adequately assess all these elements.
Hydro Leader: What do you do as the director of dam safety for McMillen Jacobs?
Catrin Bryan: I guide a team of technical people that provides dam safety services, such as inspections, assessments, reporting, and emergency planning. We also help our clients meet compliance commitments and navigate regulations. When we perform inspections on complicated water-retaining and conveyance facilities, we often identify items that need to be improved or understood better to ensure that the facility can operate safely. In addition to inspecting the dam and appurtenant structures, we provide the owners with an opinion on all the supporting information that goes into design and operations. We develop long-term relationships with most of our dam safety clients in which we supportand advise their dam safety programs and support their dam safety communications with regulators. The foundation of these long-term relationships is experience, trust, and a strong technical team.
Hydro Leader: You described how you work on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Are there significant differences in the requirements for dam safety and dam inspections in the two countries?
Catrin Bryan: In general, dam safety practices and ideas are similar and are often shared. What differs by country is the regulatory framework and some of the reporting requirements, though even those are quite similar. In Canada, dam safety is regulated at the provincial rather than the federal level, so the rules differ from province to province. In addition, not all provinces are regulated; some rely on internal processes, the CDA, or other organizations for dam safety guidance. In the United States, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates dam safety for the facilities it licenses, and there are also state-regulated dams and the dams owned and managed by federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This means that regulations vary across the border and within each country.
I’ve found that the basics of design are similar, while the models used to understand failure modes and the probability of failure occurrence aren’t usually the same. FERC has embraced the potential failure modes analysis model and more recently has made use of risk-informed decisionmaking and semiquantitative risk analysis. This is not the case in Canada. In Canada, practitioners use a failure matrix and, in some cases, sophisticated probabilistic models.
Hydro Leader: While you were vice president and president of the CDA, were you involved in developing the organization’s dam safety or public safety programs or activities?
Catrin Bryan: Before I became vice president, I was a contributing author to the CDA’s 2016 Technical Bulletin on Dam Safety Reviews, which provides clear guidance on how to complete a dam safety review (DSR). The bulletin is available on the CDA website. After we developed that technical bulletin, we put together a workshop that we presented and continue to present across Canada and internationally. Because CDA members share the goal of advancing knowledge and practices related to all dams, our membership includes people involved in hydroelectric, irrigation, flood-control, water-supply, and mine-tailings dams. In 2020, as president of the CDA, I was specifically involved in our COVID‑19 response, and with the support of committee chairs and the executive team, I provided dam safety guidance to our members as the pandemic unfolded. We are also implementing our new strategic plan, which has strong elements related specifically to dam safety. I was involved in that work as president and now as past president.
Hydro Leader: Do you think there are important things that U.S. dam and hydro owners and operators can learn from their Canadian counterparts, and vice versa?
Catrin Bryan: I think we can always learn from each other. You just have to listen and have an open mind. One of the real pleasures I have is going back and forth across the border and sharing ideas. Here’s an example: Canadian DSRs always involve interviewing and talking with operations staff. It’s something I incorporate into my FERC part 12D inspection reports, even though it is not strictly required. I always try to meet and speak with the operations personnel.
As I mentioned earlier, the U.S. and Canadian regulators use different failure modes models. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. When I do a hazard and failure modes matrix (HFMM) for a Canadian dam, I also write a narrative for the identified possible potential failure modes, as we would in a FERC exercise, with a starting condition, initiator, and progression to failure. Conversely, in the United States, I use the Canadian-style HFMM to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
Hydro Leader: Please tell us about your role in the NWHA.
Catrin Bryan: The NWHA is an organization that provides a voice for the hydropower industry in the Northwest. I serve as a board member, representing the western regions of Canada, mainly British Columbia. I search for commonalities across the border—mostly science-based commonalities rather than regulatory ones, since regulations differ. I also contribute on more-general ideas related to dam safety. Each year, with the other board members and under the leadership of our executive director, I help organize the annual conference.
To connect with our membership, I recently came up with the idea of doing a motorcycle tour of the Columbia River Treaty dams. The Columbia River is an amazing river, and the international treaty between Canada and the United States regarding certain dams and hydropower is under renegotiation. I put together an overview of the current treaty with motorcycle and dam pictures, which was super fun. Over the rest of my term, I hope to find interesting ways to present information on these cross-border issues to our membership so that members from the United States and Canada can learn more about what we have in common with respect to hydropower and dams. I’m also involved with the NWHA’s Women in Hydropower group and presented a webinar this spring.
Hydro Leader: What major trends in the hydropower industry are affecting the field of dam safety?
Catrin Bryan: Two things come to mind. First, we all know the situation we find ourselves in with aging infrastructure and the responsibilities related to that. The dam owners I work with take dam safety seriously and work hard to prioritize improvements and refurbishments to maintain facilities. However, replacing and refurbishing is expensive and complicated, so it’s a real challenge. Addressing these challenges is one important trend.
A second that is also related to aging infrastructure is that we’re using more probabilistic models to make decisions and set priorities, including decisions related to dam safety. FERC is moving in that direction with its recent notice of proposed rulemaking, and in Canada, we’re working on updating and improving the CDA guidelines, incorporating elements of probability of occurrence.
Hydro Leader: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Catrin Bryan: Dam safety is a fascinating, broad, and multidisciplinary field. I learn something every day from other engineers and scientists as well as plant operators and staff from the technical trades, plus I get to work with highly motivated, smart, fun people. I encourage others, especially young engineers, to become involved with organizations such as the CDA, the NWHA, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the International Commission on Large Dams, and the United States Society on Dams. All these organizations have young professionals programs and opportunities to participate and learn.
Also, many of the dams I work on are used for storing water for hydropower. They will likely play a key role in our energy future by providing clean energy and water; by helping us integrate intermittent renewables, such as solar and wind, into our energy supply; and by improving power quality and reliability.
Finally, as a woman engineer, after all these years, I’m happy to see so many more women entering the engineering profession and specifically becoming involved in dam safety.
Catrin Bryan is the director of dam safety at McMillen Jacobs Associates. She can be contacted at email@example.com.