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Causes of Earth Dam Failure

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Reasons for Failure of Earth Dams

Owners of dams and operating and maintenance personnel must be knowledgeable of the potential problems which can lead to failure of a dam. These people regularly view the structure and, therefore, need to be able to recognize potential problems so that failure can be avoided.

If a problem is noted early enough, an engineer experienced in dam design, construction, and inspection can be contacted to recommend corrective measures, and such measures can be implemented. Acting promptly may avoid possible dam failure and the resulting catastrophic effect on downstream areas.

Types of failure in Earth dams

Since only superficial inspections of a dam can usually be made, it is imperative that owners and maintenance personnel be aware of the prominent types of failure and their telltale signs. Earth dam failures can be grouped into three general categories:

  1. Over topping failures
  2. Seepage failures
  3. Structural failures.

A brief discussion of each type is as follows.

1. Over-topping FailuresOver topping of dams - Failure by Overtopping

Over topping failures result from the erosive action of water on the embankment. Erosion is due to un-controlled flow of water over, around, and adjacent to the dam. Earth embankments are not designed to be over-topped and therefore are particularly susceptible to erosion. Once erosion has begun during over-topping, it is almost impossible to stop. A well vegetated earth embankment may withstand limited over topping if its crest is level and water flows over the crest and down the face as an evenly distributed sheet without becoming concentrated. The owner should closely monitor the reservoir pool level during severe storms.

2. Seepage earth Failures

All earth dams have seepage resulting from water permeating slowly through the dam and its foundation. Seepage must be controlled in both velocity and quantity. Seepage failure in earth dams If uncontrolled, it can progressively erode soil from the embankment or its foundation, resulting in rapid failure of the dam. Erosion of the soil begins at the downstream side of the embankment, either in the dam proper or the foundation, progressively works toward the reservoir, and eventually develops a direct connection to the reservoir. This phenomenon is known as "piping." Piping action can be recognized by an increased seepage flow rate, the discharge of muddy or discolored water, sinkholes on or near the embankment, or a whirlpool in the reservoir. Once a whirlpool (eddy) is observed on the reservoir surface, complete failure of the dam will probably follow in a matter of minutes. As with over topping, fully developed piping is virtually impossible to control and will likely cause failure. Seepage can cause slope failure by creating high pressures in the soil pores or by saturating the slope. The pressure of seepage within an embankment is difficult to determine without proper instrumentation. A slope which becomes saturated and develops slides may be showing signs of excessive seepage pressure.

3. Structural Failure of earthen damsSlip failure in Dams - Structural failure

Structural failures can occur in either the embankment or the appurtenances. Structural failure of a spillway, lake drain, or other appurtenance may lead to failure of the embankment. Cracking, settlement, and slides are the more common signs of structural failure of embankments. Large cracks in either an appurtenance or the embankment, major settlement, and major slides will require emergency measures to ensure safety, especially if these problems occur suddenly. If this type of situation occurs, the lake level should be lowered, the appropriate state and local authorities notified, and professional advice sought. If the observer is uncertain as to the seriousness of the problem, the Division of Water should be contacted immediately. The three types of failure previously described are often interrelated in a complex manner. For example, uncontrolled seepage may weaken the soil and lead to a structural failure. A structural failure may shorten the seepage path and lead to a piping failure. Surface erosion may result in structural failure.

Minor defects such as cracks in the embankment may be the first visual sign of a major problem which could lead to failure of the structure. The seriousness of all deficiencies should be evaluated by someone experienced in dam design and construction. A qualified professional engineer can recommend appropriate permanent remedial measures.

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