How Do Dams Retain Water and What Is Seepage?

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 (See Video Example). 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 WaterWI_embankment_0.jpg

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 Water withdrawn may be discharged into the river below the dam, run through generators to provide hydroelectric power, or used for irrigation.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.

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