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NEW APPROACH TO ASSESS PIPING POTENTIAL IN EARTH DAMS AND LEVEES By Kevin S. Richards and Krishna R.

Reddy ASCE National‘s 2009 Infrastructure Report Card gave grades of D and D- for the current status on dams and levees in the U.S., respectively. It has been reported that there are more than 85,000 dams in the nation which are over 50 years old with 4,000 deficient dams, including 1,819 high hazard potential dams. The 2009 ASCE Illinois Infrastructure Report Card gave a grade of C for the current status of dams in Illinois. 445 Dams (about 32%) in Illinois are more than 50 years old; 329 of these are unpermitted. These dams likely require significant repair and rehabilitation to ensure their continued safe operation. Many of the nation's estimated 100,000 miles of levees are also over 50 years old and were originally built to protect crops from flooding; however, their reliability under the recent changing conditions is unknown. Any failure of dams or levees can pose a significant risk to public health and safety. There is an urgent need to assess the reliability of dams and levees and repair and rehabilitate them to ensure adequate performance and public safety. Unfortunately, the safety of dams and levees is often ignored until a disastor strikes leading to loss of life as well as damage to property and ecology. Approximately half of all dam failures in the world are attributed to piping phenomena. Among other possible modes piping phenomena include heave, internal erosion and backwards erosion. While the most common piping failure mode is internal erosion, most often associated with conduits or other structural penetrations through dams, up to one third of all piping failures might be attributed to backwards erosion piping (Figure 1). A number of dam failures are also due to piping into foundations or abutments with untreated geologic deficiencies (Figure 2). In 1922, Terzaghi performed experiments to study heave-type piping and developed the following equation for prediction of heave: γb/γw=icrit (1) Where γb=buoyant unit weight of soil, γw=unit weight of water, and icrit=critical hydraulic gradient at which the soil mass becomes unstable. Terzaghi’s equation is adopted by practitioners for all piping failure modes, such as backwards erosion piping or piping along internal fractures (internal

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piping occurs at higher critical velocities and lower hydraulic gradients for a given pore pressure. a relationship between the maximum principal stress and the velocity required to initiate piping in granular soils is developed. In contrast. The TTPTA consists of a cubical cell that can accommodate cohesive or non-cohesive soil samples. 2 . We also found there may be a coupling between the void ratio and the hydraulic gradient in non-plastic soils. The factor of safety against piping based on this geometry may not provide a conservative value for cases where a component of the seepage force may be working with gravity. Recently. although the theoretical basis for this adaptation of Terzaghi’s equations has not been confirmed with laboratory experiments.g. It appears that an energy component in piping exists as demonstrated by the influence of the rate of increase of inflow on the critical velocity. Based on the laboratory experiments. called the True-Triaxial Piping Test Apparatus (TTPTA) and conducting over one hundred piping tests using a wide range of materials. Bligh in 1918 and Lane in 1934) recognized an important difference between intergranular seepage and seepage along soil-structure boundaries. Heave is a special case of piping where the seepage force is acting against the force of gravity. In granular non-plastic soils. Experiments also revealed a relationship between the critical velocity and the pore pressure in the cases where soils were tested at different pore pressures below. a laboratory investigation has been performed at the University of Illinois at Chicago to investigate factors and mechanisms affecting piping in soils. allow application of confining stresses to the soil in three mutually perpendicular directions. and allow introduction of seepage water through inlet and outlet at controlled pore pressures and hydraulic gradients. piping in plastic clayey soils occurs at higher critical gradients but lower velocities for a given pore pressure. Early researchers (e. and that there are at least two important characteristic piping behaviors that depend on the plasticity of fines. and it is therefore recommended that seepage velocity (rather than the hydraulic gradient alone) be used as a better index property of piping in noncohesive soils. and above the buoyant condition. and internal erosion for the case of flow along pre-existing openings (either soil-structure openings or cracks through an embankment).. Modern practitioners define these two different piping mechanisms as either backwards erosion piping (for the intergranular-flow case).erosion). This study included developing a new test apparatus.

Ei = energy contribution due to hydraulic gradient. albeit at higher seepage velocities. Finally. When seepage is vertically upward. soils below the buoyant threshold may still be prone to piping. at which point the critical velocity drops substantially. The total hydraulic energy available to initiate piping can be given by: Etot = Ei +Ev + Eβ (2) Where Etot = total hydraulic energy available to initiate piping. however. With these improvements to our understanding.Clearly. or gain due to seepage angle. In addition to the buoyancy state.1 cm/sec). Hence. No clear relationship was found between pore pressure and critical velocity in non-buoyant noncohesive soils. Ev = energy due to increased seepage velocity at the exit. whereas the addition of even a small amount of non-plastic fines can lower the critical seepage velocity that induces backwards erosion. A small amount of plastic fines added to uniform sand greatly reduces the susceptibility of a soil to backwards erosion. The dimensionless friction head at pipe initiation can be written as: μcrit = {[(p1/γi)-(p2/γo)]+[((v1/n)2/2g)-((v2/n) 2/2g)]+δ}/L (3) 3 . Hence. Seepage angle must be considered when evaluating piping potential. however. The conclusion is that pore pressure does not play a key role in lowering the critical velocity for piping in granular materials until the soil is in the buoyant state. and Eβ = potential elevation energy loss. Overall. it is concluded that Terzaghi’s equation for calculating a factor of safety based on buoyancy alone is not sufficient. we explored a couple new methods for better predicting the risk of backwards erosion based on site characteristics. soil tests are recommended to assess site-specific backwards erosion potential due to the amount and type of fines that may be present. the other important finding from these investigations was that the plasticity and amount of fines greatly influences piping behavior. evaluating piping risk in soils prone to heave should be done separately than soils below the heave threshold. the seepage angle plays a significant role in piping. soils in a buoyant state pipe at lower critical seepage velocities (vcrit). the full affect of gravity is working to stabilize soil particles and the required seepage velocity to dislodge particles is much greater than if the seepage is horizontal or in a downward direction. There is an apparent trend between vcrit and the pore pressure when soils are in a non-buoyant state. it is not much larger than the standard deviation of the data (δ=0.

Hence. μcrit = Dimensionless Friction Head at the initiation of piping.0 4 .2= Component of Differential Pressure Head (corrected for horizontal flow). differential pressure gages measure the Ei. g= gravity. that this high velocity discharge is providing the bulk of the energy responsible for the erosion. the equation does not consider energy losses due to friction as water percolates through the embankment. but based on the laboratory experiments to-date. δ=0 for horizontal flow). For this reason. respectively. p1. These frictional losses do not necessarily contribute to piping but are largely responsible for the energy loss causing hydraulic gradients.155 m in test cell). we recommend that the kinetic energy be used in-lieu of the dimensionless friction head for evaluation of backwards erosion piping.0 g/cm3 * 1.o= Unit weight of water at the inlet and outlet. As illustrated by the dimensionless friction head equation shown above. It is suggested here.2= Darcy velocity of seepage at inlet and outlet. It was found that the velocity head component contributes very little to the overall energy of piping in freely draining granular materials if the total energy of the system is considered. it was determined that backwards erosion piping is largely a surficial phenomena caused by high velocity seepage at the discharge point influenced by intergranular flow. as this component of energy may be more responsible for the backwards erosion phenomena. v1. respectively. particularly in cases where piping is not an outcome.Where. the Ei and Eβ may contribute only a small part of the total energy used for piping. More studies of case histories could yield the relative contributions of each of the three energy terms to piping. m = n * 1. δ= Elevation head change due to seepage angle (length of seepage path times sin±β. This equation is best used for soils without plastic fines: Ekcrit = ½(mv2) ≈ ½(nv2) (4) Where: Ekcrit = critical kinetic energy of seepage at initiation of backwards erosion. Using the kinetic energy of seepage alone as an index property for backwards erosion piping would require the following expression. m = mass of percolating water per cubic centimeter of soil (for distilled water at 4˚ C. In the experiments using TTPTA. This is evidenced by the drop in head in all dams as the water approaches the seepage face. and L = length of flow path (0. One characteristic observed with piping cases is the apparent high velocity concentrated seepage exiting the pipe. n= Porosity. γi. The Dimensionless Friction Head was computed for several granular soil tests that exhibited simple backwards erosion piping. Ev and Eβ components.

So. piping = τcrit/ τavailable (7) (6) These piping factors of safety can be computed for a variety of hydraulic loading conditions that may be encountered using an apparatus similar to the TTPTA used in our work. buoyancy state. The methodology presented provides a new method for evaluation of backwards erosion piping. the differences in void ratio. If field stress states. experimental results showed a marked difference in piping behavior when as little as 10% plastic fines are present in granular soils. should be accounted in the evaluations. The methods described here may be easily used to assess the factor of safety against either backwards erosion or internal erosion at existing dams. In summary. stress state. shear stress is a better index property to use for the prediction of internal erosion due to the relatively large pore pressures and low seepage velocity that characterize internal erosion. The plasticity and amount of fines significantly affect piping behavior. or soil density differs from laboratory test conditions. for a soil with plastic fines the shear stress may be expressed by: τcrit = γwhpic (5) Where τcrit = critical hydraulic shear stress (N/m2). Having knowledge of the critical kinetic energy for noncohesive soils and critical shear stress for cohesive soils allows for better prediction of the performance of embankment dams or levees. γw = unit weight of water (N/m3). where k is the hydraulic conductivity and i is the hydraulic gradient). hp = pressure head when piping is initiated (m). improved knowledge of pipe initiation and propagation mechanisms allows for better risk evaluation of piping potential in existing structures through the use of seepage models that can predict hydraulic conditions within the soils. The results also show that for soils with plastic fines. n is porosity). As previously discussed.cm3 . piping = Ekcrit / Ekavailable F.S. hence. etc. Proper application of these techniques should help to 5 . The factors of safety can be computed by: Cohesionless Soils (backwards erosion)Cohesive Soils (internal erosion)F. and ic = critical hydraulic gradient.S. and v = Darcy velocity of intergranular seepage (v=ki. it is important to test the soils in the laboratory to determine the magnitude of these effects. It is important that Ekcrit or the τcrit be evaluated using site specific soils tested under in-situ stress states.

.D. Division of Dam Safety and Inspections. They can be reached for additional information at: kevinlaurie@sbcglobal.. 6 . Ph.better predict the piping risk at dams and to better allow limited resources to be directed towards projects with the highest risk.G.edu Figure 1 – Backwards erosion piping through an embankment. P. is Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has over 20 years of teaching. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. including the assessment and design of earth dams.. and site remediation systems. is Senior Civil Engineer in the Office of Energy Projects. Chicago.E. Kevin S.net or kreddy@uic.E. Richards. P.D.. earth structures. and he has over 30 years of experience in geotechnical and geological engineering. Krishna R. P. landfills. Ph. Reddy. research and consulting experience in the design of foundations.

a. Swift No. Utah b. Quail Creek Dam failure 1989. 2 power canal dike failure 2002. Teton Dam failure 1976. Idaho c. Washington Figure 2 – Some dam failures resulting from piping through geologic deficiencies in the foundation. 7 .