Developed by the National Technology & Development Program, Missoula, MT.
Dams are essential to the infrastructure of the United States. They are built to store water for human consumption, power generation, flood control, irrigation, stock watering, wildlife, and recreation.
The National Inventory of Dams currently indicates our nation has more than 85,000 dams. The Forest Service owns or has under its special use authorization about 1,800 dams; more than 50 percent are beyond their design life. Due to their advanced age and limited maintenance, dams need to be assessed regularly to ensure they will not fail.
A failure can cause devastating losses to life and property. Dam safety is critical.
Dam owners play a major role in dam safety. This training will help land management employees and special use owners contribute to the safety of low hazard dams or impoundments. The training has five parts:
The owners of a dam are responsible for safely operating and maintaining their dam.
There are two types of dams on National Forests, those owned and operated by the Forest Service and those owned and operated by holders of authorizations–Special Use permits, pre-Forest Service easements, Ditch Bill easements, Congressionally authorized, and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission authorized.
The extent of an owner's liability varies from State to State and depends on statutes and case law precedents. An owner could be held liable for any failure of a dam and all the damages resulting from its failure. Maintaining a safe dam is critical to preventing failures and limiting an owner's liability.
Dams may either be manmade or natural. Manmade dams, also known as impoundments, are artificial barriers that impound or divert water on a temporary or long-term basis. Naturally occurring dams may be created by beavers, landslides or glacial deposits.
The two most common manmade dams include gravity and embankment dams. Gravity dams are usually constructed of concrete or masonry. Embankment dams are constructed of earth, rock, or industrial waste materials. This training addresses earthen embankment dams.
Some of the essential features of a dam are:
This animation contains a schematic image of a typical earthen dam with essential features highlighted and labelled - when the cursor is placed near a label, a text box with a description of the particular feature appears.
Dams have many failure modes. Failure modes can include slope failures, consolidation, differential settlement, drain failures, outfall failure, spillway failure…the list is extensive.
Failures occur in varying degrees, from minor to catastrophic. Minor failures are not an immediate threat to the overall stability or integrity of the dam. However, minor failures often lead to major failures or total breaching of the dam.
Major failures involve the sudden and uncontrolled release of water. Major failures are often described as catastrophic since the damage they cause is often catastrophic. The top three categories of earthen dam failures are piping, overtopping, and structural.
Piping is caused by the progressive development of internal erosion of embankment materials by uncontrolled seepage. Seepage is evident by the excessive growth of grass or plants, wet areas, or salt deposits on the downstream slope of the dam. Depressions or sink holes in the dam face can also be an indicator of internal erosion.
Overtopping of dams may be caused by an inadequate principal spillway design or clogging of the spillway by debris. Water troughs running across the top of the dam or down the downstream slope of the dam from past flooding events may be evidence of overtopping.
Structural failures are usually the result of seepage paths caused by inadequate foundation materials and the lack of properly designed seepage control measures. A boil at the downstream toe of the dam is a sign of uncontrolled seepage through the dam's foundation materials.
Problems that may cause dam failure are:
This animation contains a schematic of a typical earthen dam with an array of common problems highlighted with a yellow warning symbol - when the cursor is placed near a warning symbol, a text box containing information about the problem will appear.
Each dam has a hazard potential classification. The rating indicates the potential impact the dam may have if it fails. It is not based on its current structural condition. There are three hazard classifications:
High hazard potential — A dam failure would likely result in the loss of at least one human life.
Significant hazard potential — Loss of human life is possible but unlikely in the event of a dam failure. However, significant loss of property or environmental destruction would likely occur.
Low hazard potential — Loss of human life and property and/or environmental damage is unlikely in the event of a dam failure.
The earthen dams covered in this training are low hazard dams.
Dress in appropriate field clothing and sturdy boots.
Make sure to bring a camera to photograph any suspected problems. Another item to bring is the "Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments." The guide will serve as a reminder of important features of dams and common problems. You may also want to bring a notebook, pen or pencil, measuring tape, and 6-foot ruler. The ruler will add scale to the photographs.
A visual condition assessment of a dam should be conducted following a consistent sequence. This will reduce the chance that a problem will be missed. One way is to start at the downstream side of the dam and work your way toward the reservoir.
This animation contains a schematic of a typical earthen dam with a sequence of number placed over certain areas - when the cursor is placed near a number, a text box will appear. The numbers and text detail the chronological process required to conduct a dam assessment.
There are two types of visual condition assessments: cursory and hands-on. The cursory assessment involves looking at the dam as a whole and identifying possible defects or problems.
The hands-on assessment involves getting within arm's reach of the feature looking for potential problems. If you feel you can't assess a feature safely, err on the side of caution and don't do it.
If you think you have found a problem, photograph it, try to determine a possible cause, and follow the recommended actions in the pocket safety guide. The recommended actions you take will depend on your experience level. Inexperienced individuals need to report the problem to the appropriate Federal or State agency official or the dam owner.
Let's take a look at some common problems you may see when visibly assessing the condition of earthen embankment dams.
SINKHOLES—surface depressions. Sinkholes are caused by piping or the internal erosion of embankment materials or the foundation. A cave-in or a small hole in the wall of the outlet pipe or drain can also cause a sinkhole.
Piping will cause a dam embankment or foundation to fail if not repaired.
SLIDE, SLUMP or SLIP—the unplanned movement of earth or rock down the upstream or downstream face of a dam. This can be caused by foundation movement, excessive seepage, seismic loading, drain failure, over steepened slopes, or a combination of those factors.
If a slide, slump, or slip is not corrected, the principal spillway may become blocked or the dam may fail all together.
BROKEN DOWN or MISSING RIPRAP—damage to the large stone, precast blocks, bags of cement, or other material on the upstream face of a dam. Riprap protects slopes against wave action, erosion, or scour. Riprap can be damaged through poor quality material, wave or ice action, or rocks rolling out.
The dam itself may erode if broken down or missing riprap is not replaced.
TREES or OBSCURING VEGETATION—the unwanted growth of trees and bushes on the dam. Trees and bushes grow when dam faces have not been properly maintained. Grass is the desired vegetation on a dam to stabilize slopes.
Trees and bushes that are not removed from a dam can impede inspection and attract damaging rodents. In addition, the roots may allow seepage paths to develop and large trees can blow down during storms causing damage to a dam or even failure.
Dam Failure Caused by a Tree
RODENT ACTIVITY or ANIMAL IMPACT—the unwanted presence of burrowing rodents or other animals on the dam. This activity is frequently caused by poor vegetation maintenance. An overabundance of vegetation, such as cattail-filled areas and trees close to the reservoir, provide an ideal habitat and foraging area for rodents and other animals.
When rodents and other animals are not controlled, they can dig holes, tunnels, and caverns. Rodent tunnels into the dam embankment increase the possibility of seepage issues through the embankment which may lead to a piping failure of the dam.
LIVESTOCK and CATTLE TRAFFIC—the unwanted crossing or grazing of livestock on a dam. Livestock traffic often is the result of damaged fences or barriers.
Livestock on the dam may create paths, possibly reducing erosion protection and causing erosion channels. Grazing livestock may also create bare areas where water can pool. As these pools evaporate, drying cracks may result.
TRANSVERSE CRACKING—where the embankment of a dam has separated along a line perpendicular to the crest of the dam. This kind of cracking can be caused by uneven movement between adjacent zones within the embankment. It can also be caused by structural stress or instability.
If transverse cracking is not corrected, the weakened area may cause additional movement, further deformation, or even failure. In other instances, water may enter the crack and saturate the surrounding area leading to a localized failure.
LONGITUDINAL CRACKING—where the embankment of a dam has separated lengthwise. Longitudinal cracking is caused by uneven settlement between the adjacent sections or zones of the embankment. It can also be caused by a foundation failure or embankment slide.
If longitudinal cracking is not corrected, the weakened area may cause additional movement, further deformation, or even failure. In other instances, water may enter the crack, saturate the surrounding area, and lead to a localized failure.
LOW AREA IN THE CREST OF A DAM—a depression on the top of a dam. Low areas are caused by uneven settling of the embankment or foundation, internal eroding of the embankment, spreading of the foundation, or improper grading of a road on the crest after construction.
Low areas can reduce the available freeboard, the distance between the normal reservoir elevation and the crest of the dam. Reduced freeboard may allow water to spill over the top of the dam. Overtopping can erode the downstream face and toe of the dam and an eventual dam failure.
EXCESSIVE QUANTITY or MUDDY WATER EXITING FROM A POINT—when water and sediment flows or leaks out of the downstream face of a dam. Rodents, frost, tree roots, and poor construction contribute to internal eroding of the embankment that may create pathways, channels, and piping through the dam. Leaks can also develop when seepage causes excessive pressure in the downstream face or toe of the dam.
If leaks are not fixed, water may saturate parts of the embankment potentially causing embankment erosion, slides, or a dam failure.
SEEPAGE WATER EXITING AS A BOIL IN THE FOUNDATION—when water bubbles out from underneath the foundation of a dam. Boils may be caused by a sand or gravel layer in the foundation that provides a pathway for water to flow.
Unfixed boils can cause the foundation to erode and lead to a dam failure.
SEEPAGE WATER EXITING AT THE ABUTMENT CONTACT—when water flows between the interface of the dam's embankment and the valley's side slope. This seepage is caused when water flows through pathways in the native abutment soils, fractured bedrock, or the dam embankment.
Flows at the abutment contact must be monitored over the long term to detect the relationship between the flow and the reservoir elevation. Abutment seepage transporting soil (looks like cloudy water) must be reported immediately.
SEEPAGE WATER EXITING FROM A POINT ADJACENT TO THE OUTLET PIPE—when water flows through a dam along the side of the outlet. This seepage can be caused by a break in the outlet pipe, a hole in the pipe, or when a water pathway (piping) has developed along the outside of the pipe due to poor compaction.
If seepage along the outlet is not corrected, the embankment may erode and the dam may fail.
FAILURE OF CONCRETE or ROCK OUTFALL STRUCTURES—when the structure around the end of the outlet pipe has broken or the rock headwall has failed. Failure of concrete outfall structures may be caused by poor concrete quality or too much pressure on the nonreinforced concrete. Failure of rock outfall structures may be caused by blockage from rocks that roll down too steep of slopes.
If the outfall structure is not repaired, the embankment may erode from exposure to outlet releases and lead to dam failure.
OUTLET RELEASES ERODING THE TOE OF THE DAM—when reservoir water flowing through the outlet pipe causes a scour hole to develop underneath the outlet pipe. This erosion can be caused by an outlet pipe that is too short. It also can be caused when the end of the outlet pipe does not have an energy-dissipating pool or structure.
If the toe of the dam erodes, the downstream face may become too steep or progressive sloughing may occur and lead to dam failure.
EXCESSIVE VEGETATION or DEBRIS IN THE SPILLWAY CHANNEL OR AROUND THE INLET—the unwanted presence of plants or other natural material in a dam's principal spillway channel or around the inlet. Typical causes are beavers constructing dams, dirt sliding, vegetation growing, and dead trees or other debris collecting in the channel or around the inlet.
If the principal spillway channel or inlet is partially or completely blocked, it may overflow, possibly causing flow through the emergency spillway or the dam to overtop. Most earthen dam crests are not armored so overtopping can lead to significant structural damage and failure.
EROSION OF SPILLWAY CHANNELS—the wearing away of the manmade channel that transports water from the reservoir to the natural downstream channel, especially during intense rainstorms or flows from the reservoir. In concrete-lined spillways, erosion occurs after the lining fails exposing the bed material. When this material is exposed, erosion hollows out the spillway foundation resulting in large voids and the eventual collapse of the spillway lining. Livestock hooves can also trigger damage by erosion especially in areas subject to flowing water like spillways. Livestock should never be allowed to graze on any part of a dam for any reason.
If this erosion is not corrected, slides, slumps, or slips can occur reducing the spillway's capacity, leading to the dam overtopping and possibly failing as a result.
In this training, you learned about dam owner responsibilities, common dam terms and features, possible dam failures, visual condition assessments of dams, and some of the most common dam problems. Most importantly, remember this training does not make you an expert but it will help you recognize potential problems that could result in dam failures.
For additional information, including useful terms and references, please refer to the pocket safety guide.
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U.S. Forest Service, Missoula Technology and Development Center
U.S. Forest Service, Washington Office of Engineering
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency,
National Dam Safety Program
PROJECT LEADER: James Scott Groenier
SOCIOLOGIST: Lisa Outka-Perkins
EDITOR: Geraldine Wolf
DESIGNER: Amanda Determan
ILLUSTRATOR: E.R. Jenne
Association of State Dam Safety Officials' Owner Outreach Committee
Kevin Bourne, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern/Intermountain Regions
Cliff Denning, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Eastern Region/Washington Office
Rene Renteria, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Region
Steve Romero, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region
Charles Showers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Missoula Technology and Development Center
Atiq Syed, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain/Southwest Regions
The Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has developed this information for the guidance of its employees, its contractors, and its cooperating Federal and State agencies and is not responsible for the interpretation or use of this information by anyone except its own employees. The use of trade, firm, or corporation names in this document is for the information and convenience of the reader and does not constitute an endorsement by the Department of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable.
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