2012 – Backward Erosion Piping: What are the chances of that?

Gavan Hunter, Robin Fell, Chris Topham

Backward erosion piping is a failure mode that can affect water retaining structures with earthen cores of very low or no plasticity. Backward erosion involves the progressive detachment of soil particles as seepage through a core material exits to a free surface or unfiltered zone. In contrast to other piping failure mechanisms, backward erosion does not require a defect to be present for initiation, and is heavily influenced by the inherent characteristics of the core materials and the available hydraulic head. For dams with non-plastic or very low plasticity core materials, backward erosion can be a material contributor to the overall piping risk and warrants careful consideration during quantitative risk assessments of such dams. However, there is very little published literature for evaluating the potential for backward erosion piping, particularly in broadly graded soils. This paper concerns one such dam where backward erosion of the glacial till core needed to be assessed in the context of a detailed risk assessment for the facility. The backward erosion mechanism was tested in laboratory tests set up to model the situation in the core of the dam at a range of hydraulic heads. The paper describes the core material and objectives for the testing, presents the apparatus used, summarises the findings, and explains how they contributed to the risk assessment for the dam. Recommendations are also made for future similar testing and research needs.
Keywords: Backward erosion, piping, embankment dam, laboratory testing, quantitative risk assessment, glacial till.


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