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Sign at Chatuge Reservoir

Protecting the Public

Engineer Sweats the Small Stuff to Keep Dams Safe

Bernie Auld remembers vacations as a young boy in the Texas Hill Country around Austin.

Hiking and swimming. Catching lizards and horned toads. Fishing for crappie with cane poles.

“It was pretty laid-back,” Auld said. “We just ran around and played.”

Now that he’s become an engineer, Auld realizes his family’s vacation spot – Inks Lake – was created by a hydroelectric dam built in the 1930s.

“All I saw was a lake,” Auld said. “As a little kid, you don’t see the dam. You don’t think of the dam.”

These days, Auld constantly thinks about dams.

The Tennessee Valley Authority senior program manager is part of a 50-person team responsible for the safety and structural integrity of TVA’s dams.

“It's our job to protect the public,” Auld said. “As an engineer, there are design standards that you go by, but your main focus is still the protection of the public.”

May 31 is National Dam Safety Awareness Day, but Auld’s team doesn’t do anything special to celebrate.

For them, every day revolves around dam safety.

Bernie Auld

Engineer Bernie Auld is responsible for structural safety at 10 TVA dams. 

Frequent Inspections

Auld’s group is accountable for 90 dams on about 30 rivers and creeks across six states.

That number includes 29 conventional hydroelectric dams, plus the dam at Raccoon Mountain. Another 19 dams are non-power-generating dams designed primarily for flood control and recreation.

The remaining 41 are secondary structures such as dikes and saddle dams along the edges of reservoirs.

Some of the dams are concrete. Some are earthen. Some are a combination of both. A few are over a century old.

And they all get inspected. Often.

Plant and facilities staff inspect every dam monthly. Dam safety specialists then perform more extensive reviews every 15 months.

And every five years a large team of experts – including structural engineers, geological engineers, geotechnical engineers, river management staff and emergency preparedness personnel – goes over each dam with a fine-tooth comb.

Permanent monitoring equipment is built into the dam sites, and TVA deploys rovers, submersibles and drones to help with difficult-to-reach or dangerous inspections.

“What we're looking for predominantly is change,” Auld said. “Are there any changes that have occurred over time?”

Dam safety inspectors focus on dams’ readiness to handle big events like floods. They also make note of routine maintenance needs, such as resealing concrete joints and breaking up calcification in pipes.

For earthen dams, the biggest maintenance task is evicting uninvited guests.

Moles.

Groundhogs.

And lately, armadillos, which have been burrowing into TVA’s eight small dams along the Beech River in West Tennessee.

Sign at Chatuge Dam

Piezometers atop Chatuge Dam keep tabs on underground water pressure. 

The Path to TVA

Auld grew up on the Texas-Louisiana border, developing a love for Cajun and Tex-Mex food.

He attended Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he majored in civil engineering and played on the football team that upset Baylor University – then ranked No. 4 in the nation – during his senior year.

He went on to get a master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, focusing on water resources. Some of Auld’s graduate school research helped persuade the state to change its dam safety requirements.

“I’ve always had an affinity for dam safety,” Auld said.

But his career trajectory took a detour through the Golden Arches.

Auld founded his own engineering firm, which handled site design projects for McDonald’s.

“I had my hand in almost every McDonald's from Nashville all the way to Arkansas,” Auld said.

The recession of 2008 hit Auld’s small firm hard.

He helped set up his employees with jobs at bigger firms. Then he submitted his resume to TVA.

“I saw an opportunity and thought, ‘Yeah, you know, I'd like to get back into what I really enjoy,’” Auld said.

While he’s been at TVA ever since, he remains close to his roots in Bayou Country.

Like most TVA operations staff, Auld keeps a go bag packed in case he needs to head out into the field on a moment’s notice.

Auld’s bag includes a toothbrush, a change of clothes and a canister of Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning.

“The essentials,” he said.

Chatuge Reservoir sign

TVA’s Chatuge Reservoir straddles the North Carolina-Georgia border. 

Future Generations

For Auld, dams are primarily water barriers.

But he recognizes their benefits extend far beyond that, from power generation to flood control to navigation.

And, of course, recreation.

A grandfather of seven, Auld wants future generations to get the chance to enjoy outdoor adventures like he did as a kid.

Strolling recently at Chatuge Dam on the North Carolina-Georgia border – one of the 10 dams he personally oversees – Auld gazed across the gently rippling reservoir to the mountains of the Nantahala and Chattahoochee national forests.

“I’m always in awe,” he said. “This type of vista, it never gets old – it’s just one of those you can look at all day. I thoroughly enjoy it.”

Visitor Matt Pawlowski agreed.

Pawlowski comes to Chatuge six days a week for a brisk 5-mile walk along the reservoir. He aims to rack up 10,000-plus steps and break a sweat.

“The aesthetics, the safety of it, the path – it’s always well maintained. It checks all the boxes of what I’m trying to get done with my exercise,” the retired college football coach, who lives nearby in Hiawassee, Georgia, said.

He makes a point of chatting with TVA staff, Pawlowski said, and he has “zero issues” with dam safety. “TVA’s a large organization and they continually have people here checking.”

That, Auld said, is exactly the point.

His team keeps tabs on the dams so the public can enjoy the rivers and reservoirs.

Nearby, in Benton, Tennessee, farmer and fisheries biology student Jacob Heiskell caught and released spotted bass and bluegill. And friends Windel Ross, SaVanna Mason and Autumn Boggs – plus Buster the dog – clambered into a raft and kayak for an afternoon float.

Towering behind them was the 135-foot-tall Ocoee Dam No. 1, TVA’s oldest dam, built in 1911. 

“I’m proud that TVA puts the effort forward in maintaining dams that are over 100 years old,” Auld said. “It’s cool just to see dams like Ocoee 1 still sitting there today, and hopefully for the next 100 years.”

Photo Gallery

Bernie Auld

Auld, a grandfather of seven, wants to keep outdoor adventures accessible for future generations. 

Rafts on river

From right, SaVanna Mason, Windel Ross and Autumn Boggs head out for a float with Buster the dog. 

Man fishing

Jacob Heiskell, an avid fisherman, gets a bite on the Ocoee River. 

Walkway on earthen dam

Moles, groundhogs and even armadillos are routinely evicted from TVA’s earthen dams. 

Monitoring well

Monitoring wells like this one at Chatuge track any underground changes. 

Drilling and dynamite marks on rock

Drilling and dynamite marks are still visible from Chatuge’s construction in the early 1940s. 

Bernie Auld holding up bottles of spices and seasoning

For Auld, spices, seasonings and salsas from Texas and Louisiana are “essentials.” 

PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: A beautiful spring day at TVA’s Chatuge Reservoir.

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Explore

Meet Husein Hasan, another of TVA’s dam safety engineers, in this article.

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