Stafford Dam: An essential water source and recreation site with carefully monitored risks

(Posted August 4, 2023) Stafford Dam, completed by North Marin Water District (NMWD) in 1951, is a key resource for Novato, California. The Dam, also known as Novato Creek Dam, impounds run-off water for treatment and distribution. The resulting Stafford Lake Reservoir annually contributes approximately 20% of Novato’s potable water supply. The Dam is also a hub for local recreational activities, with Stafford Lake Park and the Indian Valley Golf Course situated nearby.

Structural adjustments and upgrades have improved the Dam’s ability to handle maximum flood scenarios. However, dams carry inherent risks. Though rare, dam failures can lead to significant damage and even loss of life. Stafford Dam is classified as an “Extremely High Hazard Dam” by the California Department of Water Resources Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD) and as a “High Hazard Dam” at the federal level. These classifications highlight the potential downstream impacts should a catastrophic failure occur when the lake is completely full.

To manage this risk, NMWD maintains a robust safety program, including daily and weekly visual observations (including the use of 24-hour surveillance cameras), and regular engineering inspections. The Dam has also undergone several detailed investigations and engineering analyses over the years, including seismic safety studies and stability analyses. On an ongoing basis, NMWD collaborates with local emergency managers for regular exercises related to potential dam failure scenarios.

Local residents are encouraged to understand the potential consequences of dam failure and consider flood insurance for properties within or near the inundation zone. Inundation mapping is different and separate from FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps. 

An inundation map for Stafford Dam and the surrounding area can be seen on this Stafford Dam fact sheet which goes into greater detail about the information covered in this article.

To receive emergency notifications, residents can sign up for Alert Marin and Nixle at

More information on general dam safety can be accessed from the Association of State Dam Safety Officials by visiting