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Dam Guardian

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

David Sarkisian grew up in the 1980s in Salinas, California, a town of about 150,000 people located just 20 miles east of Monterey Bay and one of the country's most scenic coastlines. But the parts of California he remembers most fondly are the mountains and rivers of Alpine County just south of Lake Tahoe where he spent many weekends as a teenager fishing and camping with his family.

Thermalito Diversion Dam -- California Dept. of Water Resources Photo

It was here, while exploring and hopping around on the boulders that framed and guided those rivers, that Sarkisian discovered and nurtured his lifelong interest in geology.

Delivering Reliability
David Sarkisian in front of dam
David Sarkisian, Chief of Dam Safety Services, Division of Operations and Maintenance, California Dept. of Water Resources. -- California Dept. of Water Resources Photo

Today, as the chief of dam safety services within the Division of Operations and Maintenance (O&M) of California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR), Sarkisian guides a team of 25 engineers that monitors, surveils, inspects and guides the ongoing maintenance of the 26 dams and reservoirs within the California State Water Project (SWP), many of which are more than 50 years old.

In collaboration with their DWR peers, Sarkisian and his team ensure the integrity and reliability of a water storage and delivery system that supplies water to more than 27 million people in the state and provides irrigation for about 750,000 acres of farmland.

“We obviously play a huge public safety role,” he observes. “It’s important that we focus our resources on the most important maintenance issues on our dams while driving down risk as quickly and efficiently as we can.”

Following the Sciences

As a high school student, Sarkisian found that the natural sciences “always came easier” to him. So when he entered UCLA in 1990, he checked geology as a major, thinking it might offer him the opportunity to work outdoors in a professional capacity.

But then came a serendipitous fork in the road.

Powell Hall on UCLA Campus, Los Angeles - Photo courtesy of Satyriconi, Wikimedia Commons

“UCLA offered two different tracks of geology that interested me: petroleum geology, which seemed more research-focused, and engineering geology,” said Sarkisian. “I really gravitated toward engineering geology because it seemed much more practical.”

Engineering geology, he explained, is the application of geology to engineering projects such as dams; i.e. making sure that the geological conditions that exist at a dam site are taken into account when considering the design, construction, operation and maintenance of that dam.

Engineering geologists bridge the gap between civil engineers and geologists."

-- David Sarkisian, DWR

After graduating UCLA in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering geology, Sarkisian spent the next 15 years working in Southern California for geological engineering consulting companies. But SoCal traffic and a desire to add variety to his list of clients and engineering projects inspired him to move his young family back to the Sacramento area in 2010 to pursue an opportunity with DWR. He has worked for the state water agency ever since.

Pyramid Dam and Lake serve as a major water storage facility for the City of Los Angeles -- California Dept. of Water Resources photo
Meeting Rising Challenges

Today, Sarkisian and his team are challenged with modernizing and maintaining a network of dams largely designed and built in the 1960s when engineering standards were different.

“Our infrastructure has aged over time, and it needs much more maintenance, particularly given our greater understanding today of seismic loading, hydrology and the forces of climate change,” he declared. “We see a lot of work ahead of us, not just maintenance work, but also a lot of refurbishment and replacement type projects.”

Some of that work, adds Sarkisian, involves the replacement of large moving parts such as valves and gates, which usually have a shorter lifetime than earthen embankments or concrete structures. But increasingly, his team’s work involves upgrades to dams’ primary or emergency spillways.

A primary or service spillway is designed to provide continuous or frequent releases of water from the reservoir behind the dam. An emergency spillway, as its name implies, is used to avoid overflows of the dam caused by extreme flooding or the malfunction of the mechanical devices that release water onto the normal spillway.

DWR workers assess the emergency spillway for the Pyramid Dam Modernization project outside Los Angeles - California Dept. of Water Resources photo

Among the highest priorities for Sarkisian’s team are the modernization of Pyramid Dam and Castaic Dam, both located an hour or so northwest of Los Angeles.

The Pyramid Dam project involves making its gated spillway and emergency spillway more resilient to earthquakes and extreme weather events.

The Castaic project involves the rehabilitation of the concrete wall and floor panels of the dam’s emergency spillway to address potential extreme weather events; and seismic retrofits of a bridge that allows DWR personnel to access the outlet structures that release water from the reservoir.

Shortening the Timeline

Dam modernization work is demanding, Sarkisian explains, not only because working on large-scale structures has safety challenges, but also because DWR needs to keep dams in service even while trying to repair or refurbish them.

“We still have to store water and maintain deliveries to the 29 water agencies and their customers who rely on the State Water Project for their water,” said Sarkisian. “Getting our work done while maintaining a level operation is always a challenge.”

Sarkisian is working to speed up the design and permitting processes for major DWR projects such as the Castaic Dam Modernization. -- California Dept. of Water Resources photo

To make matters worse, dam modernization projects can take up to 10 years to complete, a function of a rather complex funding, design, and permitting process. Sarkisian, who admits to being impatient by nature, is anxious to shorten that timeline. That’s why he’s now using outside consultants to speed up DWR’s standard design process. He’s also engaging “resource” agencies to help identify issues early in a project’s life that could delay the permitting process later.

Meeting Commitments

Sarkisian’s daily work routine begins early in the Sacramento suburb of Rocklin, a community of 56,000 about 22 miles northeast of the city. After a quick breakfast and a scan of the day’s headlines, he makes the 30-minute drive to his office at DWR headquarters in downtown Sacramento, usually arriving by 6:30 a.m. for a little “quiet time” before his staff arrives. The rest of the day is typically filled with meetings with DWR engineers, environmental scientists, other managers, and consultants. He misses the time he used to spend offsite at dam modernization projects but trusts his team to manage the fieldwork and keep projects moving forward.

“Here within O&M, we have a very high work ethic and a very high commitment to DWR and the State Water Project. It’s almost a little bit infectious,” he reflects. “My dam safety group takes a lot of pride and ownership in the work we do.”

Building Preparedness

A core tenet of that work, he adds, is the public safety responsibilities that his team feels to the people of California, particularly to those who live downstream from SWP dams.

“Our dam safety program is not just about dam surveillance and monitoring or about the design and construction of dam improvement or retrofits,” said Sarkisian. “We also put a lot of effort into emergency preparedness.”

That preparedness includes investments in inundation maps (maps that show where flooding could occur over a range of water levels downstream from a dam) and the development of emergency action plans (EAP). DWR shares its inundation maps and EAPs with local emergency management offices to make sure they are well-equipped to communicate with their audiences in the event of a local dam issue.

And when he’s not thinking about community preparedness, Sarkisian is focused on investing in his own family. As the father of three (two girls and a boy), he looks forward to winter skiing trips to Diamond Peak ski resort near Lake Tahoe, summer barbecues with family and friends, swimming with his kids, and yes, even occasional day fishing trips to keep memories of his youth alive.

DWR dam experts protect California against threats to its critical infrastructure posed by seismic events and climate change. -- California Dept. of Water Resources photo
Serving the People

Sarkisian is excited about his evolving career with DWR and his team’s continuing opportunity to address and help resolve some of California’s most challenging dam infrastructure issues. But he is very clear about who he works for.

“My team and I are servants to the general public and the whole State of California,” he said. “They’re counting on us to protect them from potential seismic or severe weather threats to the critical infrastructure of the California State Water Project. Honoring that trust is and will remain our top priority.”

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