Embankment Instabilities

Embankment Instabilities



The dam embankment and any appurtenant dikes must safely contain the reservoir during normal and flood conditions. Cracks, slides, and depressions are signs of embankment instability and should indicate to the owner that maintenance or repair work may be required. When one of these conditions is detected, the owner must retain an experienced professional engineer to determine the cause of the instability. A rapidly changing condition or the sudden development of a large crack, slide, or depression indicates a very serious problem, and the state dam safety agency should be contacted immediately. A professional engineer must investigate these types of embankment stability problems because a so-called "home remedy" may cause greater and more serious damage to the embankment and eventually result in unneeded expenditures for unsuccessful repairs.


Short, isolated cracks are commonly due to drying and shrinkage of the embankment surface and are not usually significant. They are usually less than 1 inch wide, propagate in various directions, and occur especially where the embankment lacks a healthy grass cover. Larger (wider than 1 inch), well-defined cracks may indicate a more serious problem. There are generally two types of these cracks: longitudinal and transverse. Longitudinal cracks extend parallel to the crest of the embankment and may indicate the early stages of a slide on either the upstream or downstream slope of the embankment. They can create problems by allowing runoff to enter the cracks and saturate the embankment which in turn can cause instability of the embankment. Transverse cracks extend perpendicular to the crest and can indicate differential settlement within the embankment. Such cracks provide avenues for seepage through the dam and could quickly lead to piping, a severe seepage problem that will likely cause the dam to fail. If the owner finds small cracks during inspection of the dam, the should document the observations, and seal the cracks to prevent runoff from saturating the embankment. The documentation should consist of detailed notes (including the location, length, approximate elevation, and crack width), photographs, sketches, and possibly monitoring stakes. The crack must then be monitored during future inspections. If the crack becomes longer or wider, a more serious problem such as a slide may be developing. Large cracks indicate serious stability problems. If one is detected, the owner should contact the state dam safety agency and retain an engineer to investigate the crack and prepare plans and specifications, if necessary, for repairs. When muddy flow discharges from a crack, the dam may be close to failure. The emergency action plan should be initiated immediately and teh state dam safety agency contacted.


A slide in an embankment or in natural soil or rock is a mass movement of material. Some typical characteristics of a slide are an arc=shaped crack or scarp along the top and a bulge along the bottom of the slide (see drawing). Slides may develop because of poor soil compaction, the gradient of the slope being too steep for the embankment material, seepage, sudden drawdown of the lake level, undercutting of the embankment toe, or saturation and weakening of the embankment or foundation.