2015 – Revisiting a forgotten dam building technology: concrete core walls in embankment dams

Richard R. Davidson, P.E., CPEng Kenneth B. Hansen, P.E.

Early in the twentieth century, placing concrete core walls within embankment dams was a popular construction technique for small to medium height dams. It became in vogue as a replacement for the popular British dam construction technology of puddle clay core dams which were used between the 1860’s and 1920’s. It avoided the many problems with semi-hydraulic / manned placement methods of the puddle clay cores within narrow trenches. However, after the mid 1930’s this concrete core wall construction fell out of favour because of the improvements made in embankment compaction methods and the difficulties in building reinforced concrete core walls to more significant heights.
Today concrete core wall embankment dams are now reaching an age where their continued performance is being questioned. This dam building technology has become extinct and is unknown to the last few generations of dam engineers. Therefore, it is relevant to re-examine this dam building technology in a modern context and work on answering the following questions. How have these dams performed after almost a century of service? Are there unanticipated performance features that have produced positive results when subjected to extreme flood and seismic events? Does the concrete provide enhanced performance over time? What role does steel reinforcement play in the performance of the core wall? Are there lessons here that can be applied to the more common concrete cutoff wall solutions being applied to embankment dams with seepage problems? This paper examines these questions with a number of illustrative case histories to provide a retrospective illumination of this forgotten dam building technology.
Keywords: Embankment dams, Concrete core walls, Dam construction history.

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