Dam Safety 101

Introduction to Dams

How Are Dams Built and How Do They Work?

The purpose of a dam is to impound (store) water, wastewater or liquid borne materials for any of several reasons, e.g. flood control, human water supply, irrigation, livestock water supply, energy generation, containment of mine tailings, recreation or pollution control. Many dams fulfill a combination of the above functions.

Manmade dams may be classified according to the type of construction material used, the methods used in construction, the slope or cross-section of the dam, the way the dam resists the forces of the water pressure behind it, the means used for controlling seepage and, occasionally, according to the purpose of the dam.

The materials used for construction of dams include earth, rock, tailings from mining or milling, concrete, masonry, steel, timber, miscellaneous materials (such as plastic or rubber) and any combination of these materials.

Embankment dams

Embankment dams are the most common type of dam in use today. They have the general shape shown here.

Materials used for embankment dams include natural soil or rock, or waste materials obtained from mining or milling operations. An embankment dam is termed an “earthfill” or “rockfill” dam depending on whether it is comprised of compacted earth or mostly compacted or dumped rock.

The ability of an embankment dam to resist the reservoir water pressure is primarily a result of the mass weight, type and strength of the materials from which the dam is made.


Concrete dams

Concrete dams may be categorized into gravity and arch dams according to the designs used to resist the stress due to reservoir water pressure.

Typical concrete gravity dams are shown here and are the most common form of concrete dam. The mass weight of concrete and friction resist the reservoir water pressure.

A buttress dam is a specific type of gravity dam in which the large mass of concrete is reduced, and the forces are diverted to the dam foundation through vertical or sloping buttresses.

Gravity dams are constructed of vertical blocks of concrete with flexible seals in the joints between the blocks.



Concrete arch dams are typically rather thin in cross-section. The reservoir water forces acting on an arch dam are carried laterally into the abutments.

The shape of the arch may resemble a segment of a circle or an ellipse, and the arch may be curved in the vertical plane as well. Such dams are usually constructed of a series of thin vertical blocks that are keyed together; barriers to stop water from flowing are provided between blocks.

Variations of arch dams include multi-arch dams in which more than one curved section is used, and arch-gravity dams which combine some features of the two types of dams.

Water Retention and Seepage

Because the purpose of a dam is to retain water effectively and safely, the water retention ability of a dam is of prime importance. Water may pass from the reservoir to the downstream side of a dam by:

  • Passing through the main spillway or outlet works
  • Passing over an auxiliary spillway
  • Overtopping the dam
  • Seepage through the abutments
  • Seepage under the dam

Overtopping of an embankment dam is very undesirable because the embankment materials may be eroded away. Additionally, only a small number of concrete dams have been designed to be overtopped. Water normally passes through the main spillway or outlet works; it should pass over an auxiliary spillway only during periods of high reservoir levels and high water inflow. All embankment and most concrete dams have some seepage. However, it is important to control the seepage to prevent internal erosion and instability. Proper dam construction, and maintenance and monitoring of seepage provide this control.

Release of Water

Intentional release of water is confined to water releases through outlet works and spillways. A dam typically has a principal or mechanical spillway and a drawdown facility. Additionally, some dams are equipped with auxiliary spillways to manage extreme floods.

Outlet Works—In addition to spillways that ensure that the reservoir does not overtop the dam, outlet works may be provided so that water can be drawn continuously, or as needed, from the reservoir. They also provide a way to draw down the reservoir for repair or safety concerns. Water withdrawn may be discharged into the river below the dam, run through generators to provide hydroelectric power, or used for irrigation. Dam outlets usually consist of pipes, box culverts or tunnels with intake inverts near minimum reservoir level. Such outlets are provided with gates or valves to regulate the flow rate.

Spillways—The most common type of spillway is an ungated concrete chute. This chute may be located over the dam or through the abutment. To permit maximum use of storage volume, movable gates are sometimes installed above the crest to control discharge. Many smaller dams have a pipe and riser spillway, used to carry most flows, and a vegetated earth or rockcut spillway through an abutment to carry infrequent high flood flows. In dams such as those on the Mississippi River, flood discharges are of such magnitude that the spillway occupies the entire width of the dam and the overall structure appears as a succession of vertical piers supporting movable gates. High arch-type dams in rock canyons usually have downstream faces too steep for an overflow spillway. In Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, for example, a shaft spillway is used. In shaft spillways, a vertical shaft upstream from the dam drains water from the reservoir when the water level becomes high enough to enter the shaft or riser; the vertical shaft connects to a horizontal conduit through the dam or abutment into the river below.

Causes of Dam Failures

Overtopping of a dam is often a precursor of dam failure. National statistics show that overtopping due to inadequate spillway design, debris blockage of spillways, or settlement of the dam crest account for approximately 34% of all U.S. dam failures.

See an animation of a typical overtopping failure.

Animation of an overtopping failure (requires Flash Player)

(Windows Media format)

Foundation defects, including settlement and slope instability, cause about 30% of all dam failures.

Another 20% of U.S. dam failures have been caused by piping (internal erosion caused by seepage). Seepage often occurs around hydraulic structures, such as pipes and spillways; through animal burrows; around roots of woody vegetation; and through cracks in dams, dam appurtenances, and dam foundations.

See an animation of a piping failure.

Animation of a piping failure (requires Flash Player)

(Windows Media format)

Other causes of dam failures include structural failure of the materials used in dam construction and inadequate maintenance.

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