Allowable Overtopping of Earthen Dams

Darrel Temple and Bill Irwin

Aging of the nation’s flood control infrastructure has resulted in a need for reevaluation, and, in some instances rehabilitation, of existing earthen dams. Inadequate spillway capacity is often one of the deficiencies identified for these structures. Inadequate spillway capacity may be the result of changes in the watershed, sedimentation within the flood storage pool, changes in hazard classification, refined hydrologic information, or a combination of these. In many instances, correction of the problem will require an increase in flood storage or in spillway discharge capacity. However, experience has shown that vegetated earthen dams can withstand limited overtopping with little or no damage. Research utilizing actual vegetation on test embankments and experience with vegetated earth spillways has allowed quantification of the hydraulic attack required to generate failure on a vegetated embankment face. The stability of riprap used to protect an embankment from erosion during overtopping has also been investigated. The results of this research and experience have been used to develop simplified computational procedures for use in predicting an acceptable amount of overtopping flow during a major flood event. Allowing overtopping of dams to the point of incipient failure of the slope protection is consistent with the Natural Resources Conservation Service approach of requiring passage of the design flood without breach of the embankment dam or earth/vegetated spillway. This report discusses the primary considerations in predicting performance of an overtopped earth dam protected by a vegetal or riprap cover and discusses potential application of the analysis.

Since passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944 (PL 78-534) and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954 (PL 83-566), the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has assisted in the design and construction of over 11,000 flood control dams in 2000 watersheds in the US (USDA-NRCS, 2003). Many of these dams were designed with a planned service life of 50 years and are now reaching the end of that design period. Passage of the Watershed Rehabilitation Amendments Act of 2000 authorized the NRCS to undertake rehabilitation to address issues associated with the aging of these dams, but resources available for rehabilitation have been limited. One of the more common deficiencies of existing flood control dams is inadequate hydrologic capacity with the need to either discharge more water through the spillways or store more water in the reservoir to safely pass the design storm. This deficiency may be the result of development in the downstream flood plain changing the hazard classification, changes in upstream

It also requires that the flow over the dam and the expected vegetal cover conditions be appropriately represented.watershed characteristics that increase runoff rates. Observation of the performance of dams subjected to major flood events suggests that properly vegetated earthen dams can withstand some level of overtopping without significant damage (Miller and Ralston. and therefore the extent of potential overtopping.. engineering measures will usually be required. . 2002) showed that this approach could be extended to the steeper slopes associated with vegetated embankments. sediment deposition in the design flood pool resulting in decreased storage capacity. Including allowable overtopping in the analysis of total discharge capacity can significantly lower the total cost depending on the situation. 1987). construct an additional spillway.. For dams where the overtopping is primarily associated with increased runoff and the effects of sedimentation. Recent research and experience has advanced the technology forming the basis for design and analysis of these protective measures (Ayres Assoc. The earth spillway erosion model utilized by NRCS for evaluation of vegetated earth spillways includes a procedure for evaluating the time of failure for vegetal (grass sod) spillway linings that is based on both field and research data (USDA-NRCS. refinement of hydrologic studies used to generate the design flood. For many of the dams constructed with the assistance of USDA. or to protect the downstream face of the dam with engineering measures such as articulated concrete blocks (ACB) or roller compacted concrete (RCC) to allow overtopping. For dams where a change in hazard classification has resulted in a substantial increase in the design storm. In these cases it may be necessary to enlarge the existing spillway. it may be possible to safely allow some overtopping relying on natural materials such as vegetation or riprap for erosion protection. 1997). 2005). or a combination of these. This software is the first stage of a more extensive Windows Dam Analysis Modules (WINDAM) tool that is intended for application to earth dam breach evaluation. Proper use of this procedure for analysis allows the vegetal cover on the dam face to be treated in the same fashion as other protective linings and is consistent with the goal of passing the design flood without breach of the dam or spillway. Research reported by Temple and Hanson (1998. the most economical means of safely providing the needed increase in capacity is a combination of enlarging the earth/vegetated spillway and raising the top of the dam to balance cuts and fills. A beta test version of software that may be used for evaluation of vegetal or riprap protection is available as described by Temple et al. 2001. This report discusses considerations required for this type of analysis in the context of development of a software tool for performing the evaluation. 2006. Hunt et al. Application of this approach requires that areas of concentrated hydraulic attack such as toe or berm areas be evaluated separately and protected as necessary.

The use of a level surface reservoir routing procedure is normally adequate for routing the flow through the reservoir if the head-discharge relations for all outflows are properly determined. the maximum unit discharge will be the discharge associated with the low point of hydraulic control along the length of the dam. This hydrograph of maximum unit discharge will normally represent the hydraulic attack appropriate for use in evaluating the protective cover on the downstream slope. Many of the watershed flood control dams have variations in the top of dam elevation due to settlement of the earth fill over time. A single cross-section template may then be used with the maximum elevation of the template adjusted to the maximum crest elevation at any point on the dam. One approach to computing the overtopping discharge is to assume that the variation in the top of dam elevation forming the hydraulic control will dominate over variations in dam cross-section shape. Handbook 667 (Temple et al. For slope protection such as vegetation where computation of hydraulic stress is required. The flow resistance relations of USDA Ag. Routing the flow through the reservoir including dam overtopping as described previously will result in the maximum local unit discharge over the top of the dam being computed for each time step used in the routing. Since these variations may be of the same order of magnitude as the expected overtopping head. 2005) and NEH-4 (USDA-NRCS. Slope Protection Evaluation The means of evaluating the slope protection will depend on the type of protection being considered. With the computations carried out as described. it is also necessary to account for the variation in this elevation when performing the reservoir routing to determine the hydraulic attack on the downstream face of the dam. Standard procedures for computing backwater curves may be used to obtain the unit discharge for each node point along the length of the dam. normal depth on the slope may generally be assumed. 2004).. 2006) are available for use in developing the appropriate reservoir inflow hydrograph. The considerations associated with these computations are discussed by Temple and Hanson (2005). For existing dams with vegetated earth spillways and/or vegetation on the dam crest. For most watershed dams of the type constructed . Tools such as the SITES software (USDA-NRCS. Total discharge over the dam is determined by expressing these discharges in the form of a weir coefficient and assuming that both the overtopping head and the computed coefficient vary linearly along the length of the dam. this requires accounting for the variation in flow resistance with discharge in determination of the outflow. The design storm for an NRCS dam and reservoir is determined using the appropriate criteria as described in TR-60 (USDA-NRCS.Hydraulic Attack Determination of the hydraulic attack on the downstream face of an overtopped dam requires routing of the flow from the design storm through the reservoir. 1987) may be used for this purpose.

. 2002) tested 3H:1V embankment slopes with various vegetal covers and found that the relations used to predict spillway performance could be effectively applied to embankments with proper consideration given to the potential for increased sensitivity to discontinuities. τo = the gross hydraulic stress on the vegetated slope. The principles of vegetal protection are the same for the steeper slopes of the dam embankment as for the vegetated earth spillways. Occasionally riprap-lined slopes will also need to be evaluated and will be discussed briefly in this report. Vegetal Protection Grass has been used extensively as a protective lining for waterways and spillways for a number of years. d = the flow depth on the slope. Although the approach to evaluation of ACB protected slopes would be expected to be similar. 1994). and S = the slope of the energy grade line. The procedure includes provision for the effects of cover and surface uniformity with three levels of surface or cover discontinuities identified. 1997): ⎛n ⎞ τ e = τ o (1 − C F )⎜ s ⎟ ⎝ n⎠ with 2 (1) τ o = γdS (2) and the terms defined as: τe = the erosionally effective hydraulic stress. ns = the soil grain roughness of the material supporting the vegetation. 1997). This procedure is based on the results of research conducted over a period of years and on data collected from vegetated earth spillways that had experienced flow during flood events (Temple and Hanson. The spillway erosion model incorporated into the SITES software for use in evaluating earth spillway performance includes a procedure for evaluating the time of failure of a grass cover in an earth spillway when subjected to hydraulic stress (USDA-NRCS. γ = the unit weight of water. the primary concern is with the protection afforded by vegetation. discussion of the issues associated with these or RCC protected slopes will not be undertaken herein.with the assistance of NRCS. Temple and Hanson (1998. The relation describing the hydraulic attack on the vegetated slope is (USDA-NRCS. CF= the vegetal cover factor. n = Manning’s coefficient defining the total roughness of the vegetated surface.

(1987). Major discontinuities are those large enough to allow the flow to fully concentrate within the discontinuity and effectively negate the protective capability of the cover. For fine grained material typical of vegetated embankment slopes. thus negating the entire concept of designing for allowable overtopping. At the other extreme. the flow depth is represented by the normal depth of flow and the slope of the energy grade line is the sine of the slope angle with the horizontal. the erosion begins in the locally disturbed area where the discontinuity forces the effective value of the vegetal cover factor to zero. For field conditions.5 where Iw = the plasticity index of the soil on the embankment slope. Surface discontinuities are accounted for by adjustment of the parameters in equation 1 as described in USDA-NRCS (1997). (4) The integral is carried out over the routed hydrograph with stress expressed in lb/ft2 and time in hours. it would be considered unusual for the vegetal cover to be sufficiently uniform to make it appropriate to design for uniform cover conditions. failure of the cover is indicated. When these are present. application of equation 3 for design in dam rehabilitation applications would normally imply the assumption of minor discontinuities. Manning’s n is computed as a function of the stem length and density of the vegetal cover and the unit discharge on the slope. the soil grain roughness takes on a value of 0. The vegetal cover factor varies with the type of vegetal cover. uniform cover.The parameters of equation 1 are discussed by Temple et al. and major discontinuities.0156. When hydraulic attack exceeds the levels indicated by either equation 3 or 4. Three vegetal cover classifications are recognized.2 I w + 1 (3) τ o ≤ 13. For uniform flow conditions on the slope. With embankment conditions that allow adequate rooting of the vegetal cover the allowable attack is given by the unit dependent relations: ∫τ and e dt ≤ 0. minor discontinuities. major discontinuities make the cover locally ineffective in preventing erosion. Therefore. Minor discontinuities in the vegetal cover are defined as those having dimensions on the order of vegetal stem length and/or flow depth. Evaluation of the protective capability of a uniform grass cover may be appropriate for other considerations such as determining the expected benefit of a dam maintenance . Equation 3 represents limiting conditions for the failure mode of erosion of the embankment soil material through the vegetation leading to local failure of the cover through undercutting and removal.

A consistent approach to application based on this breakdown is to use the relation developed by Abt and Johnson (1991) for slopes flatter than 10H:1V. Equation 7 assumes that all the flow down the slope is interstitial .26 S t −0.02 ≤ S t ≤ 0.22 0. (1998). D50786 0.program with sod forming cover on the slope. Riprap Protection For some dams experiencing limited levels of overtopping. it would appear possible to identify the primary region of applicability of each based on the primary range of conditions investigated during the development of the relation. The ability of riprap to protect steep embankment slopes was investigated by Frizell et al. a slope-weighted average of the allowable unit discharge computed by the equations 5 and 6 is considered appropriate. This relation may be expressed as: q a = 3.58 1.58 n p hrr 0. (1998) describing flow through the riprap are considered most applicable to slopes from 2. it may be appropriate to utilize riprap to prevent erosion on the downstream face. (1998) and the use of riprap for steep chutes was investigated by Abt and Johnson (1991) and Robinson et al.5 (7) For the transition region between 10H:1V and 6H:1V.48 gD50 S t Cu2. Data on which to base this bound are very limited and the selection of the indicated value tends to reflect the bounds of existing experience as well as conservative engineering judgment. The relations developed by each of these authors may be expressed in the format of an allowable (design) unit discharge computed from the slope angle and the properties of the riprap. (1998) is considered most applicable to slopes ranging from 6H:1V to 2. As additional data become available. Although the original authors indicate some overlap of applicability of the relations developed. Equation 4 represents the bounding condition of a stress level sufficient to cause direct destruction of the vegetal cover through uprooting or tearing and removal of the leaves and stems.4 (6) The relations developed by Frizell et al.4 < S t ≤ 0.1 (5) The relation developed by Robinson et al.17 ≤ S t ≤ 0. The allowable unit discharge based on these relations may be expressed in the form: qa = 2. it may be appropriate to allow a larger value than that indicated by equation 4. D5089 0. Additional tests focused on refining quantification of the impact of discontinuity size on the performance of grass cover on an embankment slope have been performed and analyses of those data are underway.3 S t −0.5H:1V and may be expressed in the form: q a = 4.768 1.5H:1V to 2H:1V.

Equations 5 and 6 are unit system dependent. The parameters for equations 5 through 7 are defined as: qa = the allowable or design discharge in cubic feet per second per foot above which riprap failure is expected. The allowable conditions for gross stress on the vegetation . Most dam embankment slopes will fall within the range covered by equation 6. therefore. WINDAMa. and attack levels insufficient to fail the lining on the slope do not result in the initiation of that erosion. St = the embankment slope expressed as the tangent of the slope angle. Application The concepts and relations presented in the preceding sections focus on the hydraulic attack required to fail vegetal or riprap slope protection. The slope limits indicated for the relations are those consistent with application of the equations as a set and are therefore more restrictive than the limits placed on them by the original authors. Output describing the attack on the embankment slope is expressed as a percentage of the allowable as shown in figure 1. This tool. routes a hydrograph through the reservoir and computes the attack on the downstream face of the dam using the approach described. As noted. or even if. np= the porosity of the riprap..and that hrr is equal to the average flow depth. In that context. Focusing on the point of failure of the lining on the slope implies that areas of concentrated attack. breach would occur following the failure of the surface protection. the relations are logically applied through use of programmed computation. These equations are considered applicable for angular riprap with D50 less than approximately 2 feet and a placed riprap thickness greater than or equal to twice D50. These relations may be applied in the determination of allowable overtopping if it is assumed that overtopping up to the point of failure of these protective coverings is acceptable. hrr= the riprap thickness expressed in feet. the failure of the surface protection represents the beginning of the erosion that could result in breach. 2006). The approach does not address the issue of how rapidly. each equation is applied to a range most representative of the original data from which it was developed. continues to increase as long there is flow over the dam. and. This approach is consistent with that used for design and analysis of structural measures such as articulated concrete blocks or concrete. Note that the attack associated with the erosionally effective stress in figure 1a is a time integral of the stress (equation 3). such as toe or berm areas. and Cu= the coefficient of uniformity defined as the ratio of D60 to D10. D50 = the riprap diameter in feet for which 50% by weight of the material is finer . A software tool for use in performing these computations is presently (2006) at the beta test stage (Temple et al. are submerged or adequately protected. Because computation of the hydraulic attack requires routing of the flow through the reservoir.

no actual reservoir site represented.(equation 4) or unit discharge over the riprap (equations 5 – 7) are associated with the magnitude of the discharge and. the dam would breach. it is important that any variations in the elevation of the hydraulic control along the dam crest be accounted for. peak with the maximum unit discharge over the dam. or if. Using the point of incipient failure of the protective lining on the embankment slope to define an allowable extent of overtopping implies that areas of concentrated hydraulic attack are appropriately protected. (a) (b) Figure 1: Example output from WINDAMa illustrating application of the relations to (a) a vegetated slope and (b) a riprap protected slope. therefore. In determining the hydraulic attack on the slope of an overtopped dam. For illustrative purposes only. The version of WINDAM (WINDAMa) used to develop figure 1 is the first stage of an effort to develop a tool for evaluating dam breach due to overtopping. Applying these procedures to the determination of an allowable extent of overtopping is consistent with the approach normally used in design of structural protective measures and with the concept that the dam and spillway system must be able to pass the design flood without breach. When complete. Defining the acceptable or allowable overtopping as that which would result in the incipient failure of the protective lining on the slope does not directly address the issue of when. In many cases. Summary Research has provided improved procedures for the prediction of the point of failure for natural materials such as vegetation and rock riprap that protect the downstream face of an earth embankment dam from hydraulic attack due to overtopping. The analysis and tools described herein do not address the issue of how these areas are to be protected nor how the attack in these areas should be evaluated. variations in the dam crest elevation . it is envisioned that the point in the hydrograph at which 100% of the allowable attack on the slope is reached will represent the beginning of the next stage of the breach erosion process.

References 1. Impact of converging chute walls for RCC stepped spillways. Since failure of the lining is a local phenomenon. Engr. The tool. Ruff. Frizell. to evaluate allowable overtopping as an integral part of agency dam design criteria. Development of the software tool has been a joint effort of ARS.. pg 301-312. ASCE 117(8):959-972. The next stage will include a breach prediction model where failure of the embankment slope protection by overtopping is the point of beginning for breach erosion processes. 2005. Abt. M.. H. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Assoc. The final stage will include the addition of features such as the SITES earth/vegetated spillway erosion evaluation so that a dam designer can evaluate an entire existing or proposed earthen dam system for erosion/breach performance during passage of a design storm. However.. Design Manual for Articulating Concrete Block Systems. 4. Mishra. L. J. NRCS tentatively plans to limit the acceptance of allowable overtopping to rehabilitations of existing dams where the quality of the vegetal cover on the embankment has been demonstrated and can be expected to continue.. WINDAMa. Riprap design for overtopping flow. Report Prepared for Harris County Flood Control District. the maximum unit discharge over the dam should be used in determining incipient failure of the lining. when finalized. it will usually be appropriate to assume that minor discontinuities in the cover will be present at the time of overtopping when the computations are made for design purposes. A software tool has been developed to assist in making the appropriate computations. NRCS. editor. The NRCS plans to utilize WINDAMa. Ayres Assoc. Raymond. The fact that the lining failure is a local phenomenon also means that the weakest area must be represented when determining the protective capability of the protective lining. and D. This is particularly true for the relatively low levels of overtopping that represent allowable conditions for vegetal or riprap linings. 1998. Las Vegas. Hunt. 2. S. of State Dam Safety Officials. and Kansas State University. 66pp. . F. Temple. 2001. The presence of major discontinuities will negate the protective capability of the vegetal cover. In analyzing vegetal protection. Simplified design guidelines for riprap subjected to overtopping flow. is the first stage of a WINDAM (Windows Dam Analysis Modules) tool that is envisioned as a complete earthen dam analysis tool. and T. Sept. Hydr. In: Walton. NV. J. C. K. CD ROM. Johnson. K. R. and S. S. Kadavy. 1991. 3.along the length of the dam will result in the maximum unit discharge over the dam at a given reservoir elevation being significantly different from the average unit discharge over the dam. 2001. L.

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