Seepage Control in Earthen Dams

Most dams in active use today exhibit seepage of one form or another. The location, rate of flow, and turbidity (clear or murky) are the critical factors when evaluating the seriousness of seepage from a dam. Seepage is the continuous movement of water from the upstream face of the dam toward its downstream face, and is a major minor problem when it comes to the life span of dams and embankments. It is a major minor problem because if controlled the affects are minor and not hazardous, but if not controlled it can become a major problem and possibly result in failures.

-Conditions of Seepage-
Most dams have some seepage through or around the embankment as a result of water moving through the soil structure. If the seepage forces are large enough, soil can be eroded from the embankment or foundation. Seepage can also develop behind or beneath concrete spillways or headwalls. The signs of this type of problem could be cracking or heaving. Freezing and thawing will amplify the affects of seepage on concrete structures. The rate at which water moves through the embankment depends on the type of soil in the embankment, how well it is compacted, and the number and size of cracks and voids within the embankment. Saturation of embankment soils, abutments, and foundations due to seepage generally result in reduced soil strengths leading to sloughing, sliding and instability. In the worst case, seepage can result in total embankment failure if situations are not monitored. Many seepage problems and failures of earth dams have occurred because of inadequate seepage control measures or poor cleanup and preparation of the foundations and abutments. Seepage can lead to soil piping and embankment sloughing or sliding, both of which can lead to dam failure. Soil piping occurs when material is washed out at the base of the downstream face causing a hole to form underneath the dam. This hole is enlarged as more material is washed out by water flow, which increases due to...
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