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Adopting unsaturated flow properties in the

design of earthen dams: An integrated design
approach taking into account hydrologic and
geotechnical events
DOI: 10.13140/2.1.3927.2329



Mahmoud Al-Riffai
University of Ottawa

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Available from: Mahmoud Al-Riffai

Retrieved on: 22 January 2016


M. Al-Riffai
Department of Civil Engineering, University of Ottawa,
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1N 6N5
In the field of geotechnical engineering, the degree of saturation is a critical parameter since its effect on pore pressures can
significantly influence the slope stability of an earthen dam. In the event of a high intensity storm, quasi-saturated soil
conditions in the downstream slope will result in an increase in the local soil coefficient of permeability. In addition, it is likely
other activities such as piping may also have further adverse affects. This paper investigates the different methods for
achieving unsaturated conditions and maintaining them in earth retaining structures. Furthermore, constitutive relationships
that exist between the unsaturated coefficient of permeability and other soil parameters such as soil material, soil layer
thickness, poresize and water content are investigated using an integrated approach taking into account hydrologic and
geotechnical events.

Dans le monde gotechnique, le degr de saturation est un paramtre critique puisque son effet sur la pression de pore peut
miner la stabilit de pente d'un barrage de terre. En cas d'une averse de pluie intense, des conditions de sols quasi-saturs
dans le bas de la pente peuvent amplifier la permabilit locale du sol. La canalisation naturelle peut aussi avoir davantage
deffets dfavorables. Cet article tudie les diffrentes mthodes pour raliser des conditions insatures ainsi que son
application aux barrages de terre. Tandis que la connaissance des rapports constitutifs existe entre la conductivit
hydraulique et les paramtres de conception (c.--d. matriel de sol, paisseur de couche, pore-taille et teneur en eau) une
analyse intgre est ncessaire pour dfinir les variables de commande.


Dam embankments have provided a benefit to human

societies by means of generating power, regulating floods
and water storage in times of drought. Yet over the last 70
years, records of dam failures throughout the globe show
that about 138 dams have failed (Foster et al. 2000). This
figure accounts for 1.2% of the dams built and does not
include the dams that have failed in China and Japan pre1930. Dam failure can be disastrous to the very human
communities they serve. Floods produced as a result of the
release of large amounts of stored water can be perilous to
local communities and environments. A burst dike along the
Yangtze River in 1998 resulted in a flash flood, killing
thousands of people and leaving millions homeless! (BBC,
The outflow hydrograph emanating from the flood is
characterized by a rising limb, a peak discharge and
recessing limb. The time to peak and peak discharge is
greatly a function of the erodibility of the dam and the
breach location (Figure 1). As more water is released from
the reservoir, soil material along the breach channel erodes
allowing a larger quantity of water to flow. Although the
areas under both graphs (reservoir volume) are the same,
the attenuation to the hydrograph for the soil with a low
erodibility decreases the peak discharge and increased the
peak time. Such flood characteristics are more favorable
than those attained by a soil with high erodibility since more
time is available for the evacuations of local communities. It
also decreases the hazard potential of the flood. It is to the

interest of the designer and flood hydrologist to maximize

the unsaturated zone within an earthen embankment since
matric suction increases the cohesive forces between soil
particles, consequently increasing the shear strength.
This paper examines the different factors that may prolong
and expand the unsaturated zone under hydrologic and
geotechnical and events. Nowadays, with the surge of
various Finite Element Applications, it is possible to
incorporate the different failure methods of an earthen
embankment by integrating such causable events within the
boundary conditions of a preliminary embankment design. It
is also necessary to develop the collective approach with
respect to the selection of the different elements affecting
the design of dam embankments. In order to do so, one
must first consider which soil materials will be used as the
control variable (Xu et al., 2003) for achieving optimal
hydraulic properties. This can be achieved by initially
defining the hydrologic and geotechnical factors that are
likely to be exerted during the lifetime of the earth



Whether seepage in the form of piping will prevail over a

stability collapse due to excessive precipitation (or
significant seismic activity) or from erosion occurring from
overtopping, it is possible that more than one event will
result in dam breaching.

Figure 1. Flood Hydrograph as a result of dam breach.



Piping accounts for 43% of dam failures (Table 1), and

occurs when the homogeneity of the soil in the upstream
side of the embankment is disrupted by seepage of water
through propagating voids below the phreatic surface of the
embankment. The continuous void eventually reaches the
downstream side of the embankment and may vary in
appearance from a soft wet area to a flowing spring
(Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 1994). It is
therefore necessary to thoroughly compact the
embankment during its construction. There are on the other
hand, other factors that are not within human control, such
as burrowing activity by local fauna and lead to piping
erosion. Onda and Itakura, 1997, found that river crabs are
able to excavate their burrows in cohesive soils, burrowing
into and below the ground water table (i.e. below the
phreatic surface in an embankment dam) in a J shape
within hydraulic gradients ranging between 0.21 and 0.25.
Approximately two thirds of piping failures occur during the
initial filling phase of the dam up to the first 5 years of
operation (Fell et al., 2003). Although not fully understood,
the piping phenomenon has been defined by some
researchers (Foster et al., 2002, and Craig, 2004) to be of
four types (the first two types are illustrated in Figure 2):

Backward erosion piping: where erosion originates

at the downstream toe of the embankment and
works it way upstream towards the reservoir.
Concentrated leak piping: where a crack
originating from the water source to the exit point
causes erosion to advance in the direction of
decreasing head.

Suffusion: this occurs as a result of fine soil

migrating downstream as a result of high pore
water pressures (PWP) destabilizing the hydraulic
gradient of the seepage path.
Blowout: this occurs as the high PWP in the
downstream foundation of the dam diminish the
effective stress condition, and is usually followed
by backward erosion.

The material in dam embankments therefore, should be

coarse grained since it will yield the least consolidation
settlement and minimum burrowing conditions.


Overtopping accounts for approximately 45% of dam

failures (Table 1) and occurs when the head water height
exceeds that of the dam crest. This may be due to storms of
high intensity where the filling rate of the reservoir is higher
than rate of release from the spillways or gates or simply
due to a malfunction in the spillway gates. Overtopping is
caused primarily as a result of but not limited to rainfall.
Head levels in a reservoir can increase from broken utility
lines, utility trenches, street upgrades, permeable layers,
gravel packed subdrains (Croney et al. 1958). Singh, 1996,
identifies the flow above the dam into three regimes (Figure

Zone 1: The flow depth is above critical

(subcritical) and pertains to a low energy level (the
datum being the crest elevation). The low hydraulic
forces attributed to the subcritical flow induce small
tractive forces on the bed material and erosion will
take place in highly erodible materials for this


may render the instability more catastrophic (Eckersley,


Zone 2: In this region the water profile experiences

a drawdown effect where the flow depth is below
critical (supercritical) and pertains to a low energy
level since the there is no change in elevation. The
high hydraulic forces have little impact on bed
material erosion due to the limited distance over
which they are exposed to.
Zone 3: In this region, flow is supercritical (with
Froude No. > 1) and pertains to a high energy
level. The high hydraulic forces generated will
induce significant erosion to the bed material.
Erosion can also be induced if a hydraulic jump
occurs along the downstream slope leading to
momentous scour in the locality. However, erosion
can be initiated anywhere regardless whether the
hydraulic jump occurs or not. It is first initiated by a
small overfall in the downstream slope through the
development of a scour hole. The propagation of
the dug channel in the downstream face of the
embankment then erodes downward and upstream
where the channel length is increased such as
there is a continuous flow from the reservoir to the
downstream slope (Figures 4 and 5).



Upstream slope failures are a result of rapid drawdown of

the reservoir head mainly due to breach in another location
upstream of the reservoir. During this phenomenon the
residual high PWP and are no longer confined by the
hydrostatic forces that used to exist on the saturated
upstream slope of the embankment. This failure method is
attributed to clayey banks where the release of the high
PWP occurs over a very large period of time, due to low
hydraulic conductivities in fine soils.


Downstream slope failures occur due to reduced shear

strength along a failure slip surface. They are especially
predominant during meteorological events such as storms
or by frozen soil surcharge. A study by Crosta and di Prisco,
1999, showed that tunnel scouring (a process by which
water seeps through the soil surface, increasing local
recharge) is a factor that can be combined with hydrologic
and geotechnical events to cause downstream slope failure.
Different mechanisms of tunnel scouring (Figure 6) are
attributed to drying shrinkage, human activity (such as
incision from large wheeled off-road vehicles), biogenic
factors (such as rodents) and seepage erosion (such as
piping). Such point sources (representing surface erosion)
increase the recharge in the soil, eventually increasing the
elevation of the ground water table (GWT) and leading to
slope failure (Figure 7 and 8).

Slope Instability

Slope failures account for 7% of dam failures (Table 1) and

occur in two regions; upstream and downstream side of the
embankment. Their occurrence is due to the high pore
water pressures (i.e. low effective stress) that reduce the
factor of safety to a value less than one. While liquefaction
may not directly cause slope instability, yet a sudden
increase in pore pressures as a result of seismic activities

Table 1. Dam embankment failures up to 1986 excluding dams constructed in Japan pre-1930 and China (after
Foster et al. 2000).
Mode of Failure
Total Overtopping

No. of Cases

% Failures

Average Frequency (%)







Total Slides




Total Unknown Mode



Through Embankment
Through Foundation
From Embankment into Foundation
Total Piping

Total Failures
No. of Embankment Dams


Figure 2. Model for development of failure by piping (a) backward erosion, and (b) concentrated leak (after Foster and Fell,

Figure 3. Hydraulic flow regimes and erosion zones during

overtopping (after Powledge et al., 1989).

Figure 4. Idealized breach profile for earth dams (after

Singh, 1996).

Figure 5. Downstream face longitudinal slope growth (after Fread, 1988).

Figure 6. Possible mechanisms at the origin of tunnel scouring and seepage erosion (after Crosta and di Prisco, 1999).

Figure 7. Three-dimensional sketch of transient fronts and sequential slope failures (shaded volumes and failure surfaces
numbered 1-5), mainly limited to the highly saturated slope sector below the water point sources (after Crosta and di Prisco,

C() is a correction factor (equal to unity at low suction

ranges) and can be defined as:

C 1

ln 1



ln 1



Figure 8. Evolution of the saturated domain with time within

the slope as obtained by numerical modeling (a) 1 month
(b) 5 months after deep incisions were made (after Costa
and di Prisco, 1999).


= constant related to the matric suction (kPa)

corresponding to the residual water content, r.

A typical value is about 1500 kPa (Fredlund et al., 1994). To

obtain the parameters a, n and m, experimental data should
be used beyond the value r.



The higher matric suction is the potential driving energy in

transporting flow in unsaturated soil conditions (Karube and
Kawai, 2001). Several researchers have developed models
for describing the Soil Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC)
and flow behavior and in unsaturated soils. The SWCC
equation suggested by Fredlund and Xing, 1994, gives the
best fit among all other equations (Leong and Rahardjo,
1997) developed as well as having a minimum number of
parameter constants and low sensitivity (especially at low
suction ranges). The sigmoid curve describing the
desorption SWCC (Figure 9) is as follows:

w C ( )

ln e




= volumetric water content;

= saturated water content;
= suction pressure (kPa);
= natural base of logarithms;
= suction related to air entry value of the soil;
= parameter that controls the slope at the
inflection point in the SWCC;

Note: The inflection point or air entry value corresponds to

the matric suction where the ratio of the change in water
content with respect to the change in matric suction is

= parameter that is related to the residual water

content, r ; and

Figure 9. Typical soil-water characteristic curve for a silty

soil (after Fredlund and Xing, 1994).

Unsaturated Hydraulic Conductivity

As defined by Karube and Kawai, 2001, as the suction in

the soil is increased due to the migration of pore water
(caused by a potential difference in matric suction), the
"bulk water begins to drain away". Researchers such as
Dexter, 2004, have developed empirical formulations that
determine the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity at the
inflection point based on the desaturation parameter, S
(slope at inflection point) and hi (matric suction) as follows:


Models by Van Genuchten-Mualem, Brooks-Corey-Burdine

as well as Fredlund et al., 1994, were analyzed by Meerdink
et al., 1996 and Chiu and Shackelford, 1998. Results
showed that there is a tendency to underestimate the
unsaturated hydraulic conductivity by several orders of
magnitude for compacted clays using the above models.
Meerdink et al., 1996, therefore notes to designers the poor
selection of parameters describing unsaturated flow may
significantly affect the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity
prediction of a soil in numerical analyses.

water content during adsorption is the residual air content,

and corresponds to the occluded air bubbles.

Figure 10 shows the hydraulic conductivity of three soils

each with a different pore size. As pore size increases, the
saturated hydraulic conductivity increases. However, for
unsaturated soils, especially at high suction the reverse is
true. At high matric suctions, the larger pores empty first
under drying, and fill last under wetting. Therefore, the large
pores in dry of optimum soils become hydraulically inactive
at high suctions and greatly reduce the tortuousity of the
water flow path (Meerdink et al., 1996).
Figure 11. SWCC showing hysteresis effect due to
adsorption and desorption (after Fredlund and Xing, 1994).

Figure 12. Hysteresis in unsaturated hydraulic conductivity

in Wenatchee silty clay (after Meerdink et al., 1996)

Figure 10. Hydraulic conductivity versus negative pore

water pressure head for gravel, sand and soil (after
Stormont, 1995)


As shown in Figure 11, the adsorption curve is lower than

the desorption curve. During the wetting (adsorption)
process, occluded air bubbles render the soil at lower
saturation degrees in comparison to the drying phase under
the same matric suction. Therefore, this lower degree of
saturation causes a more tortuous path for water to flow,
hence a lower permeability (Figure 12). As the soil
continues to saturate, matric suction is reduced, however,
the maximum water content (at zero suction) is less than
the initial value before desorption. The difference between
the initial water content before desorption and maximum

Since data for permeability and degree of saturation with

respect to matric suction are carried out during the drying
stage due to ease of measurement, the predicted
unsaturated hydraulic conductivity of a soil undergoing
wetting (e.g. during a rainfall event) will provide a
conservative design.





Apart from burrowing activity and surface erosion, piping

may also occur as a result of cracks introduced in to the
embankment during the process of settling. Regardless of
how it is caused, it can be hindered by decreasing the
tortuousity of the voids within the embankment. This can be
achieved by constructing the dam with a central core of low

permeability (Figure 13a). This means that the embankment

is no longer of a homogenous soil and will increase the
complexity of the analysis of the internal flow nets.
Furthermore, this may be particularly dangerous due to the
relatively large hydraulic gradients from the core to the
adjacent soil (Craig, 2004) hence causing internal erosion.


In clay core embankments, pore pressures are higher than

predicted due to the choking effect that occurs when fine
material is eroded within cracks and transported and
trapped in the upstream face of the filter creating a
relatively impervious skin (Sherard, 1984). The high pore
pressures on the downstream side of the core will result in
higher exit gradients which can lead to serious erosion
(LeBihan and Leroueil, 2002). Solving this problem can be
carried out by installing a chimney drain on the
downstream side of the central core (Figure 13a), and by
intercepting the seepage path of the flow line this will
maintain the downstream slope of the embankment in
unsaturated conditions (Craig, 2004). The unsaturated
conditions in the downstream slope will increase soil suction
and decrease the local hydraulic conductivity while
increasing the shear strength. Both are favorable conditions
regarding earthen dam design.
Craig, 2004, also suggests methods for eliminating or
reducing under seepage by elongating the flow path
beneath the embankment. A grout curtain may be installed
below the central core when the foundation material is
higher in permeability than the embankment. It is unclear,
however, whether the equivalent permeability of the dam or
that of the coarser material should be considered. Another
method aimed at increasing the seepage path in the
foundation and reducing under seepage is by incorporating
an impervious upstream blanket above the foundation of the
dam (Figure 13b).

Assuming the seepage is conveyed from the upstream

towards the downstream slope, it will tend to deviate
downwards with the phreatic surface. Therefore,
maximizing the area of unsaturated zone by the use of
coarse grained filters as described above is necessary.
However, the pore sizes of the filter material must be small
enough to prevent the transport of the erodible soils
(Cedergren, 1989). Studies by Bertram, 1940, have shown
that two criteria must be satisfied for a conservative filter
D15)f/D85)s < 4 to 5


D15)f/D15)s < 4 to 5


Where D15)f is the diameter of the 15% finer for the filter
particles, D85)s is the diameter of the 85% finer for the soil
particles and D15)s is the diameter of the 15% finer for the
soil particles. Criterion one is also known as the piping
Note: The U.S. Department of the Army, Corps of
Engineers, 1986, states that the second criterion translates
into the following expression:



Where D50)f and D50)s is the diameter of the 50% finer for
the filter and soil particles respectively, and that the filter
particles would 25 times more permeable than the soil
particles. However, Army Corps of Engineers, 1986, also
mention that the second criterion is valid for soils with a
gradation curve parallel to that of the filter material, and that
further filtration tests must be carried out to determine the
filter size particles (Cedergren, 1989). For example, with CL
and CH clays, filter particle size can be up to 0.4 mm.
Other methods can be carried out to increase the
unsaturated zone within the downstream slope and will be
discussed herein this paper. Heed must be taken in order to
not to significantly desaturate the downstream slope, since
this could lead to cracks due to drying shrinkage
(Cedergren, 1989).

Figure 13. (a) Central core and chimney drain, and (b) grout
curtain (after Craig, 2004)
Since piping occurs as internal erosion along a path of
highest hydraulic conductivity, it will be unlikely for the
seepage to propagate along an unsaturated soil medium.


An important factor that must be considered in the design of

earthen dams is Compaction. As void ratio is reduced, pore
size is reduced, causing a higher capillary tension in the soil
(Karube and Kawai, 2001). Results by Meerdink et al.,
1996, have showed that a lowered hydraulic conductivity is
more sensitive to the compactive effort rather than molding
water content (i.e. wet of optimum or dry of optimum). In the
case where the dam embankment is non-homogenous (i.e.
contains a clay core), maximizing the matric suction and
consequently reducing the hydraulic conductivity of the clay
core is still a concern. It is first necessary to identify the
phreatic surface in the cross-sectional domain in order to
compact the soil corresponding to the saturatedunsaturated zones. However, the phreatic surface is

dependant on the compactive effort and not only the

geometry of the embankment. Hence, determining the
compactive effort necessary for the saturated-unsaturated
zone of the clay core will be through an iterative process
with the available FEM techniques. The process, by which
such techniques will be used, will be discussed later on in
this paper.
A study by Vanapalli et al, 1997 has shown that for
saturated soils, the permeability is lowest for wet of
optimum compaction (Figure 14). This lowest permeability
continues to decrease with applied stress. The study has
also demonstrated that shear strength is higher for wet of
optimum specimens (Figure 15). Hence, it is necessary to
compact the saturated zone of the clay core and remaining
coarse soil under the phreatic surface of the embankment
at wet of optimum in order to reduce the possibility of

saturation, its hydraulic conductivity is 100 smaller than that

of a specimen compacted at 58% degree of saturation.
Furthermore, pore size diameter is 6 times smaller for the
former specimen, rendering both parameters favorable for
the reduction of the seepage properties within the
embankment core (Figure 16). This study can also be
useful when considering the compaction degree of
saturation for the lining cover of the embankment dam.
When compaction takes place at degrees of saturation less
than that of optimum for this type of till, the hydraulic
conductivity does not vary significantly with respect to void
ratio. This approach can be utilized if the local borrow
material for the embankment core is an expansive soil.

Figure 14. Saturated coefficient of permeability test results

from one-dimensional, consolidation tests (after Vanapalli et
al., 1997).

Figure 15. Shear strength versus suction for specimens

tested with different initial water contents under 25kPa net
normal stress (after Vanapalli et al., 1997).
Other studies by Watabe et al., 2000, on glacial till in
northern Quebec do not refer to the optimum moisture
content, rather the compaction degree of saturation as a
control variable. It has shown that at different compaction
degrees of saturation, permeability and pore size diameter
corresponding to air entry values vary significantly (Watabe
et al., 2000). For a specimen compacted at 94% degree of

Figure 16. Hydraulic conductivity as a function of the

compaction degree of saturation at a void ratio equal 0.25,
and (b) Pore diameter corresponding to the air entry value
as a function of the compaction degree of saturation (after
Watabe et al., 2000).


The initiation of the breach channel during overtopping is

followed by an increase in channel depth due to downward
erosion. As the channel depth increases, the stability of the
channel sides is undermined, hence at certain times,

wasting of the sides will occur. The channel width

meanwhile will continue to erode downwards causing the
further vulnerability to the side slopes. It is therefore
important to note that the erodibility of unsaturated soil
would be less than that of saturated soil due to its higher
shear strength. For this reason, the frequency of side slope
instability caused by the breach will be less than that of
unsaturated soil. The enhanced shear strength of the
downstream side will inhibit the lateral breaching
mechanism and therefore delay the erosion process and
consequently the peak discharge of the flooding event.
Since the same volume of water will escape from the
reservoir, therefore the peak discharge will also be




= shear strength at failure;

= unsaturated soil cohesion;
= net normal stress;
= angle of internal friction of the saturated soil;
= matric suction of the unsaturated soil; and
= angle of internal friction of the unsaturated soil.

It is assumed that any embankment design does in fact take

into account the prevention of overtopping. Nevertheless,
this paper will consider overtopping in extreme climatic
conidtions. The erosional effect of overtopping, however,
may be hindered by installing lining covers made of
compacted fine soils on the crest and downstream slope of
the dam. The cohesive strength of the lining covers will form
a provisional resistance to the high shear stresses in the
supercritical flow regime.

Figure 17. Suction versus moisture content relation (after

Cokca et al., 2004).

Slope Instability

Slope failures herein this paper, will only refer to failure of

downstream slopes, since they are more affected by the
degree of saturation. While upstream slopes are completely
saturated, their material selection should be that of a coarse
grained soil in case of a rapid drawdown was to occur. The
coarse grained soil will quickly drain the pore water and
release any residual PWP during the drawdown process.
Nevertheless, numerical analyses regarding PWP and
consequent shear strength (i.e. slope stability) should be
conducted even for upstream slopes comprising of coarse
grained materials.

Clay Core Unsaturated Zone

Compaction should take place on the dry side of optimum

during construction (Figure 17) of the unsaturated zone of
the clay core. Eventually, the suction present in the soil will
increase as the soil dries and since the rate of permeability
for clay is very low, this will be useful for guaranteeing that
the embankment core will maintain itself in a state of
unsaturated condition after construction.
The study by Cokca et al., 2004 on compaction of
unsaturated clays, showed that shear strength is enhanced
as moisture content is reduced at the dry side of optimum
as higher friction angles as well as higher suction are
exhibited between the (flocculated) clay aggregates (Figure
18). It is shown, however, that the cohesion corresponds to
a maximum value at the optimum water content (Figure 19).
However, an analysis using the shear stress equation for
unsaturated soils (shown below) for each individually tested
water content, must be carried out before concluding the
most favorable moisture content:

f c'( u a ) tan '(u a u w ) tan b


Figure 18. Angle of friction versus moisture content

relationship (after Cokca et al. 2004).

Figure 19. Cohesion versus moisture content relationship

(after Cokca et al. 2004).

Reduced shear strength of a saturated clay core can be a

result of relatively high permeability (i.e. high PWP).
Therefore it is necessary to conduct a balance between the
desired shear strength and the source hydraulic
conductivity by FEM analyses. This process will minimize
failures caused by the simultaneous effect of an increased
hydraulic conductivity and lowered shear strength. For the
same compactive effort, soils dry of optimum with a
flocculated arrangement exhibit a higher hydraulic
conductivity than soils wet of optimum represented by a
dispersed arrangement. However, at higher suctions, this
variation was shown to diminish (Meerdink et al., 1996).

consequently maintain the high matric suction existing

within the coarser soil below (personal communication,
Vanapalli, 2005), another motive attributed to their use.

Clay Covers

Soil suction in slope stability analyses is often ignored due

to the perception that soil suction will continuously dissipate
in the soil sub-layers when water percolates under the
effect of rainfall (i.e. wetting process) (Zhang et al., 2004).
In order to diminish matric suction by rainfall, it must be so
that the intensity of rainfall even is equivalent of the
saturated permeability of the ground surface and endured
over a long period of time (Zhang et al., 2004). Hence
assuming a worst case scenario where the surface layer of
the soil has presumably been subjected to consecutive
rainfall events (i.e. fully saturated conditions are in effect),
clay which exhibits relatively low permeability can be used
as a lining cover for the dam. This design measure will
therefore play an important role in maximizing stability
especially under major hydrologic events.

Figure 20. Suction measurements in a weathered rhyolite in

Hong Kong (after Sweeney, 1982).

In situ suction measurements conducted by Sweeney,

1982, in Hong Kong demonstrated that intermediate depths
in a decomposed rhyolite soil of permeability ranging
between 10 m/s to 10 m/s, were not affected following a
rainstorm (Figure 20). In contrast, in suction measurements
carried out by Anderson, 1983, on colluvium with a
saturated coefficient of permeability ranging between 10
m/s to 10 m/s dissipated suction values up to 10 m
following a heavy rainstorm (Figure 21).
Therefore, with respect to the fine soil covers on the crest
and downstream side of the dam, compaction must be
carried out in favor of hydraulic conductivity. A study by
Smith et al., 1999, showed that at moisture contents 0.5 to
1.5 % wetter than optimum, a lower permeability for colliery
spoils is achieved. A disadvantage of compaction wet of
optimum is that desiccation cracking may occur, diminishing
the favorable effect of lowered hydraulic conductivity
(Meerdink et al., 1996). A study by Elsbury et al., 1990,
yielded similar results for clays. Also at higher compactive
efforts, yield a lower permeability (Figure 22). More data is
needed for quantifying the degree of compaction versus
hydraulic permeability with respect to soil properties and the
It is also necessary to incorporate certain hydrologic
processes into the design analysis. Infiltration due to severe
rainfalls may increase the PWP on the downstream side of
the dam, and undermine the stability of the slope. Lining
covers on the downstream slope will also minimize the
downward moisture flux in the event of a rainfall event and

Figure 21. Suction measurements in a colluvium in Hong

Kong (after Anderson, 1983).

Another key variable in soil cover design is the hydraulic

conductivity of the top soil layer. As saturated hydraulic
conductivity decreases, infiltration through the coarse layers
also decreases. It was demonstrated that the grain size of
the coarser soil affects the water storage capacity of the
fine soil layer; as coarser soils were used, the water storage
capacity of the fine soil was increased, reducing infiltration
into the coarser soil.
A study by Stormont and Morris, 1997, suggests that an
intermediate layer (or Unsaturated Drainage Layer, UDL)
such as fine-grained sand may improve the performance of
the lateral drainage mechanism if it is conductive enough to
laterally divert the seepage flow (Figure 24).

Figure 22. Effect of moisture content on compaction and

permeability (after Smith et al., 1999).
Assuming that the coarser material is in an unsaturated
state and under relatively high matric suction (300 400
kPa), its permeability will be lower than that of the top
(clayey) soil (Figure 10). Furthermore, if these linings are
installed on a slope, they will laterally divert the flow path
through a low saturated permeability layer before reaching
the coarser soil below. This occurs as a result of the
capillary barrier effect sustained at the fine-coarse soil
interface. This phenomenon will cease once the suction at
the interface reaches a critical value (i.e. of equal
permeability) to allow downward seepage (dipping) to take
place. This process can be useful as a method to maintain
the negative pore water pressures in the underlying soil.

Layer Dimensions and Hydraulic Conductivity

Infiltration will initiate into the topsoil when the matric

suction increases to a point where it is near the water entry
value and the moisture content will represent that of a
residual value. This matric suction is at a value lower than
that of air entry value (Figure 11). A study by Khire et al.,
2000, was conducted to illustrate the different design
variables that must be considered when design capillary
barrier systems. It was found that as the surface layer
thickness increases, lateral diversion was more evident, this
proportionality decreased at certain thicknesses. Moreover,
it was found that lateral diversion is also a function of
relative hydraulic conductivity between the coarse and fine
grained soils (Khire et al., 2004).
Figure 23 below can be used to select the materials
capable of performing a lateral diversion. It is important to
take into account the hysteretic behavior of unsaturated
soils in order to properly simulate evaporation (drying) and
precipitation (wetting) within the simulation.
According to the study made by Khire et al., 2000, the
thickness of the coarser layer also played a role in the
lateral diversion phenomenon. As this thickness increased,
percolation was reduced; nevertheless, this variable was
not as predominant as the thickness of the top layer soil.

Figure 23. (a) SWCC, and (b) Unsaturated hydraulic

conductivity functions for various soils (after Khire et al.,
It is not imperative that the UDL be fine of sand as
illustrated in Figure 24, however, there lie certain restraints
with respect to the spectrum of grain sizes available for
It may be important to note that the hydraulic gain of using
an UDL may not be financially feasible, since this will
increase the complexity of the design as well as material

and labor requirements. A study by Morris and Stormont,

1999, on landfill sites mentions that increasing the lateral
diversion in basic capillary barriers can be carried out by
modifying the fine grained soil lining the embankment. Such
modification may comprise of an additional vegetative layer
for increased water adsorption by plant roots (Figure 25).
This will also increase the local evapotranspiration rate, and
eventually maintain unsaturated conditions. The type of
vegetation that will grow on the soil cover is dependent on
climatic and regional conditions; however, it is beneficial to
grow vegetation that is not influenced by varying climates,
so as to preserve its longevity. Morris and Stormont, 1999,

also state that the primary variables for lateral diversion are
the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity of the fine soil and
the gradient of the soil interface. An increase in gradient
increases the diversion length (Figure 26). The nondimensional diversion length represents the ratio between
the diversion length to the difference between the maximum
and minimum diversion length for the corresponding slopes.
Another important variable is the shape of the SWCC which
is governed by the soil characteristic parameters for
unsaturated flow (i.e. water entry value, water storage, and
desaturation rate).

Figure 24. Lateral drainage in unsaturated soils due to (a) capillary barrier (b) inclusion of intermediate material to form
unsaturated drainage layer (UDL) (after Stormont and Morris, 1997).

Figure 25. Schematic of capillary barrier showing vegetative

cover (after Morris and Stormont, 1999).

Figure 26. Nondimensionalized diversion length (after

Morris and Stormont, 1999).

A study by Smesrud and Selker, 2001, showed that a

maximum lateral diversion length can be achieved with a
maximum particle size contrast ratio. Nevertheless, it is also
necessary to ensure the integrity of the coarse-fine soil
interface and the local slope stability; hence it was shown
that an underlying layer 2.5 times coarser than the covering
layer will yield 80% of maximum diversion. A larger contrast
ratio will cause migration of the fine soil into the coarser
layer, therefore diminishing the very textural distinction of
the interface responsible for this phenomenon. For simple
capillary barrier systems, Khire et al. 2000, suggest three
steps to follow regarding the design process:

First it is necessary to define the meteorological

data that will be used in the simulation. The critical
time where infiltration will occur is when
precipitation (P) exceeds evapotranspiration (ET),
or ET P 0. Since this formulation does not
take into account surface runoff and storage
interception, the storage capacity, SR, of the top
soil can be expressed as follows:



Where a is the runoff coefficient and can be approximated

to be between 5-10%.

Second, the surface layer thickness can be

estimated using the equation below:

S R ( z B )dz


(z + B)


= relationship between the water

content and the suction (i.e.
= distance above the coarse soil
layer; and
= thickness of the fine soil layer.

Third, the layer thickness is adjusted using

numerical analysis; and
Finally, the thickness may be adjusted to account
for other factors such as desiccation, wind and
water erosion and a factor of safety to account for
excessive percolation.


Finite-Element Methods (FEM) or Finite-Elements Analysis

(FEA) has helped engineers and scientists over the past 60
years to predict a stress and/or strain states within a finite
boundary. The area or volume for 2D and 3D modeling
respectively of interest is divided in a mesh where boundary
conditions are known where each division corresponds to
one element. With knowledge of the constitutive
relationships between the state variables (stress and

hydraulic) and material variables, the effect of the boundary

conditions can be transferred through the entire mesh. A
greater number of nodes (i.e. connections between
elements) will yield more accurate results; however, most
seepage problems are solved with less than 2000 nodes.
With respect to FEA in earthen embankments, engineers
are mostly concerned with flow behavior and PWP. With
information on the latter, it is possible to conduct a slope
stability analysis based on initial conditions of the
embankment (i.e. steady state seepage) or under
hydrologic and/or geologic events (i.e. transient seepage
and dynamic loading). To model seepage in earthen
embankments, two functions are used; SWCC (i.e. water
content as a function of suction) and permeability as a
function of suction. The embankment cross-section is then
numerically analyzed and where slope stability is
consequently investigated using the principle of effective
stress and shear strength at failure.

Saturated-Unsaturated Flow Seepage

Before the development of FEA, seepage in earthen

embankments was determined by the method of
Casagrande, where designers did not take into account the
negative pore-water pressures within the flow-net. However,
this method may not be very effective for predicting
seepage, PWP, seepage face position and water table
position (Chapuis and Aubertin, 2001). A numerical analysis
on a large dike by Crespo, 1994, predicted the flow rate to
be 10 to 20% higher than a similar study by Bowles, 1984,
where negative PWP were ignored. The study by Chapuis
et al., 2001, obtained a flow rate equal to that of Crespo,
1994, using a later version of SEEP/W with 1145 elements
of 1.0 m as opposed to 295 elements of 2m. The results of
Chapuis et al., 2001, yielded a higher water table level and
hence a larger seepage surface on the downstream side of
the dam. Therefore it is cautioned to take into account
unsaturated flow seepage during the design of the
downstream slope of the dam in order to avoid
complications arising from freeze-thaw cycles in the winter
(Chapuis and Aubertin, 2001). Also by determining the
negative PWP in the downstream side of the dam, a more
accurate analysis can be conducted with respect to slope
stability (Chapuis and Aubertin, 2001).
The biggest challenge in numerically modeling the hydraulic
aspect of earth dams is the method by which the phreatic
surface is determined (Xu et al., 2003). Using the FEA
computer application, SEEP/W, does not immediately
calculate the water table level in an earth embankment, and
therefore its location must be obtained by simultaneously
analyzing all factors affecting the unsaturated flow seepage.
This can be carried out using a series of iterations (Chapuis
and Aubertin, 2001) as previously mentioned. Chapuis and
Aubertin, 2001, explain the iteration process as follows:

The first simulation will yield nodes in the

downstream side with a head higher than the
reservoir elevation. These nodes will then be
assigned a boundary condition that of the phreatic

During the second calculation, if any downstream

nodes indicate a head higher than elevation, then
they will be set equal to the elevation for the third
The iterations cease once all nodes along the
slope illustrate a PWP equal to zero or negative.

It is of the designers objective to achieve lowering of the

position of the phreatic surface as much as possible in
order to reduce the total seepage flow (Xu et al., 2003).
Hence in order to optimize the design, multiple analyses
must be carried using the various soil input design variables
as well as the hydrologic, geotechnical and environmental
boundary conditions. A study by Xu et al., 2003, suggests
the use of a performance index regarding the choice of how
two soil materials are allocated, formulates the optimization
of an embankment design. Their main criterion is based on
the satisfaction of zero seepage on the downstream side of
the embankment and negative PWP in the air boundary (top

Hydrologic Processes and Unsaturated Soils

It can be seen from studies by Sweeney, 1982, and

Anderson, 1983, how the saturated permeability and rainfall
intensity play an important role in maintaining unsaturated
conditions. Zhang et al., 2004 state that for a rainfall event
less than one or more orders of magnitude than the
saturated coefficient of permeability, the long-term matric
suction is maintained.
By taking into account Darcy's law and the law of continuity
through a 2-D soil element, the partial differential equation
for the transient flow through unsaturated soil is derived by
Zhang et al., 2004, as follows:

h h
k x k y m2 w g
x x x y


within the dam embankment challenge. The study carried

out by Zhang et al., 2004, states that additional parameters
governing seepage such as the SWCC, permeability
functions and processes governing infiltration under
transient situations are also required. In their numerical
analysis using SEEP/W, infiltration was modeled with
respect to the hydrologic processes in steady state as well
as transient conditions.
The Combined Hydrology And Stability Model (CHASM)
was selected in the study by Wilkinson et al. 2002, to
assess the effects of vegetation and slope plan topography
on slope stability during storm events. This model allows
analysis with respect to the hydrologic phenomena
associated with vegetation such as interception and
evapotranspiration, and their effect on slope stability. The
study by Wilson el al. 2002, show that the model's capacity
to capture variable plan topography and plantation covers
renders it very useful for predicting the rainfall threshold
yielding slope instability.

Storm Simulations

It is often debated how storm events should be taken into

consideration when simulating storms. Research studies
conducted by Khire et al., 2000, state that it is necessary to
conduct simulations that represent precipitation over a
number of years using the most rigorous meteorological
data. Three different return periods where therefore studied
by Ng et al., 2001. They found that increasing the return
period of the storm from 10 years to 100 years produced
the most significant increase in PWP. It was also shown
that simulating a storm with duration of 24 h in comparison
to 168 h resulted in the highest PWP build-up in the
unsaturated slope. This is due to the higher rainfall intensity
of the 24 hour storm. The numerical analysis conducted by
Ng et al. 2001 utilizes the FEMWATER model, which is a
3D finite-element application simulating groundwater flow in
saturated and unsaturated porous media (Figure 27).

k x & ky


= unsaturated coefficient of permeability

in the x and y-direction respectively;
= hydraulic head;
= time;
= water storage coefficient, or the slope of the
volumetric water content versus matric suction
where the change in net normal stress, d( ua),
is equal to zero;
= density of water; and
= gravitational acceleration.

The hydrologic processes required will be defined and

integrated within the boundaries of the embankment design.
Such hydrologic boundary conditions are; rainfall intensity
and duration (i.e. precipitation), evapotranspiration, surface
runoff and interception. Infiltration, on the other hand, is a
strong function of the former processes. Although
geotechnical engineers consider infiltration as the most
important hydrologic process in their work, it is equally
important to be able to model all hydrologic processes

Figure 27. Three-Dimensional FEM

FEMWATER (after Tung et al. 1999).



Another model (SEEP/W and SLOPE/W) similar to CHASM

used a similar approach for investigating how the reduction

of matric suction led to slope failures in Manitoba by

including an additional factor, evapotranspiration. However,
the study conducted by Blatz et al., 2004, did not
confidently determine the magnitude of evapotranspiration,
but yielded a high sensitivity with respect to the factor of
safety (Figure 28). This emphasizes that evapotranspiration
is an important factor when trying to model the net moisture
flux during a rainfall event; nevertheless, it must be
determined using more appropriate methods to account for
Infiltration was









= infiltration rate (cm/day);

= precipitation rate (cm/day);
= evapotranspiration rate (cm/day); and
= runoff coefficient based on a given return period.

Penman, 1948, stated that evapotranspiration for sparse

vegetative layers with adequate availability of water can be
approximated to evaporation from a free water surface. The
evaporation, E (cm/day), can then be calculated based on
Meyers formula (1944):

E 0.0106(1 0.1U )(es ea )2.54



= wind speed at two meters height (mph);

= saturated vapor pressure (mb); and
= actual vapor pressure (mb).


Moisture Flux

It may be necessary to demonstrate two seepage scenarios

during rainfall events; seepage under steady state
conditions where the moisture flux, q, into and out of the soil
reach equilibrium, or, under transient conditions where the
PWP response over a certain time period is to be
investigated (Zhang et al., 2004). The former scenario is
relevant to rainfalls after prolonged durations where as the
latter is applicable at the inception of a rainfall.
Nevertheless, both approaches should be used to
determine the change in matric suction with respect to
various depths. The study by Kasim, 1997, and Kasim et
al., 1998, has shown that for a rainfall event less than one
or more orders of magnitude than the saturated coefficient
of permeability of the top soil layer, the long-term matric
suction is maintained. Yet it is important to quantify the
rainfall intensity and duration as well as the soil parameters
that are in agreement with this concept.
A numerical simulation using SEEP/W conducted by Zhang
et al., 2004, has shown that with respect to steady state
seepage, the negative pore water pressures are constant
with respect to depth and the ratio q/ksat of the coarser layer
(i.e. sand) is less than unity and the net ground flux is zero
(Figure 29). Simulation of the transient seepage scenario
(also conducted using SEEP/W) showed that the PWP were
decreasing with time during soil saturation, but were limited
to a constant value in the final state (Figure 30). It was
found that under transient seepage scenarios (the moisture
flux in is greater than the flux out of the soil), PWP are
maintained negative when q/ksat is less than unity where as
PWP are equal to zero when q/ksat is greater than or equal
to unity.

Effects of SWCC on Infiltration

The study by Zhang et al., 2004, investigated the

parameters of the SWCC with respect to infiltration. Several
simulations where carried out using the formulation by
Fredlund and Xing, 1994, for different values of the a, m
and n parameters characterizing a soils SWCC. The
following observations where noted in the study by Zhang et
al, 2004, for steady state seepage:

Figure 28. Factor of safety versus percentage change in

evapotranspiration (after Blatz et al. 2004).

It was found that the higher the a parameter (i.e.

corresponding to AEV) with respect to the SWCC
the greater suction was reduced and the deeper
the affected zone;
The n parameter (corresponding to the slope or
desaturation rate at the inflection point) did not
significantly affect suction nor depth of the affected

This highlights an important postulation by Kasim, 1997,

that the matric suction corresponding to a steady state
rainfall flux can be extrapolated from the permeability
function curve.
The study by Zhang et al, 2004, for transient seepage found
that the lower the a parameter with respect to the SWCC
the depth uniformity of the wetting front and the transient

time for it to progress downwards increases. This can be

explained such that at high suctions, the permeability is
lower for soils with a lower air entry value, hence limiting the
percolation. However, for a larger moisture flux, q, the ratio
of q/ksat is larger for soils with lower air entry values, and so
the PWP will vary significantly along the depth of the soil.
While the results obtained above were obtained from a FEM
analysis that has fixed the water table boundary at a
specific height, further FEM analyses indicated that the
GWT significantly rose for soils with a lower water storage

Figure 29. Infiltration into an unsaturated soil under steady

state conditions with various ground surface moisture fluxes
(after Zhang et al., 2004).

This highlights the importance of allowing a floating GWT

within a numerical analysis (Figure 31). The study by Zhang
et al., 2004, states that enduring the permanence of matric
suction, the ratio of moisture influx to ksat should be less
than 0.01 for an air entry parameter greater than 100.

Capillary Barriers

Numerical studies conducted by Morris and Stormont,

1997a and 1997b, showed that using capillary barriers on a
slope of 10% completely diverted the downward moisture
flux and maintained the negative pore water pressures in
the underlying layer at a nearly constant value. The study
carried out by Khire et al., 2004, comprised of a numerical
analysis using the UNSAT-H model due its ability to
simulate unsaturated flow, evaporation and transpiration as
well as its favorable results with respect to field
observations. A disadvantage of this one-dimensional
model is that it ignores lateral drainage and will tend to over
predict infiltration. They argue that there are no other
application is available for validating field observations
especially for long-term hydrologic simulations.
Although it is necessary to maximize the surface runoff and
minimize interception storage when considering the design
of the top soil cover, the significant erosion caused by runoff
over time might diminish the effect of the cover lining and
consequently the permanence of matric suction in the soil
below. Models such as the Water Erosion Prediction Project
(WEPP) have been used by the USDA since 1995 to predict
the runoff and erosion. It bases its prediction primarily on
the ksat of the top soil and may be included in the analysis
by simulating an optimum balance between surface runoff,
erosion and evapotranspiration by vegetative covers
(Blanco-Canqui, 2002).
Morris and Stormont, 1999, also conducted a numerical
analysis by modifying an existing computer code,
TRACER3D, capable of simulating 3D saturated and
unsaturated flow behavior in soil. By simulating 2D flow,
and accounting for an evapotranspiration distribution using
the HELP (Hydrologic Evaluation of Landfill Performance)
model developed by Schroeder et al. 1994, the authors
developed a model capable of simulating lateral diversion
performance (Figure 32).

Figure 30. Infiltration into an unsaturated soil under

transient seepage conditions with two different ground
surface fluxes (a) q < ksat, and (b) q > ksat (after Zhang et al.,

Dam Breach

Several models have been developed over the past 20

years to simulate the breach mechanism and formation of
the breach channel. Sediment transport rates incorporate
soil cohesion and surface roughness during the erosion
process. The breach enlargement by sudden collapse takes
into account side slope instability of the breach channel and
the shearing of wedge-shaped soil masses by hydrostatic
forces in the reservoir (Figure 33). However, the BREACH
model does not take into account the variance in soil
cohesion in the cross-sectional domain (Fread, 1988), or in
other words the effect of matric suction on slope stability
and the erosion rate (especially in cohesive soils).

Figure 31. Transient seepage analysis (after Fredlund, 2003; Budapest,


Figure 32. Schematic of Numerical Model (after

Morris and Stormont, 1999).

Figure 33. Water and sediment outflow hydrographs from the hypothetical failure of the homogenous embankment (after
Mohamed et al. 1999).

Figure 34. Dam embankment considered in study.




Definition of the input parameters and design variables is

the first step for planning an integrated design process in
earth embankments. The input parameters may be
considered as the hydrologic, geotechnical and
environmental conditions that will act as the major influence
on the simulation and consequently on the design (Table 2).
For the purpose of this study, a typical dam embankment
design was selected consisting of mainly a coarse material,
a central clay core and a toe drain (Figure 34). The design
variables are related to the dam embankment geometry and
zoning (Table 3).

Design Guidelines

The next step is to link the design variables and input

parameters in a simple cause and effect relationship (Table
3). This will guide the designer for the selection and/or
manipulation of the design variables to conform to the
testing requirements regarding the slope stability and
erodibility corresponding to the input variables. Although the
cause and effect relationship between the design variables
may be complex (i.e. involving a number of relationships),
only the dominant causes and resulting impacts are
defined. A similar relationship also exists between the input
variables (Table 2).

Simulation Process Flowchart

The resulting design must not only maximize the

unsaturated zone, but it must be tested with respect to the
most common failure modes within earth embankments (i.e.
slope instability and erosion). The ability of the 2-D SEEP/W
to simulate saturated-unsaturated flow seepage and GWT
positioning as a result of seepage erosion and
meteorological activity renders the package valuable for the
design. Other advantages of SEEP/W are that it is capable
to simulate infiltration in both steady state and transient
conditions under various meteorological inputs as well as its
ability to interface with SLOPE/W and QUAKE/W (GEOSlope 2004) for carrying out slope stability analyses and
dynamic loading. A conceptual algorithm detailing the
interface with the various simulation models and both
design variables and input parameters was developed to
guide the design process (Figure 35). The HELP model will
then be run in parallel to simulate for a more accurate
distribution of evapotranspiration, by capturing data from
SEEP/W during the hydrologic modeling phase. It is then
necessary to test the model at the defined time interval for a
stable GWT as well as ET distribution. Once these events
have been stabilized, the process may continue and take
into account the analyses of the slope stability (e.g.
SLOPE/W) and erosion models (e.g. WEPP). In the case
where the design yields a failure with respect to slope
stability and/or erosion, the design variables can be finetuned in accordance with the design guidelines mentioned
above (Table 3). Finally, the algorithm will proceed through
a succession of time intervals until the entire storm duration
is fulfilled.



Specific design considerations pertinent to maximizing the

unsaturated zone within an embankment such as
appropriate drainage, embankment material selection,
compactive efforts, optimum moisture content as well as a
clay lining cover are proposed. Hydrologic and geotechnical
events causing earthen embankment breaching, defined
herein as input parameters, will be integrated vis--vis
interfacing seepage, slope stability and hydrologic FEM
modules. Optimizing the design variables will be performed
by means of a conceptual design algorithm that will guide
the designer to simulate the rigorous input parameters
under transient as well as steady state conditions. Further
studies on predicting outflow hydrographs in dam breaching
mechanisms should also consider slope stability and
erosion in the unsaturated zone, especially with respect to
cohesive soils.


The writer wishes to acknowledge the guidance,

encouragement and insight of Professor Sai Vanapalli
towards this term paper and also express his appreciation
and recognition to the organizers and fellow Civil
Engineering undergraduate and graduate students of the
first Students Conference on Unsaturated Soil Mechanics
conducted at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario,
Canada; April 3 , 2005.

Table 2. Input parameters: cause-effect relationship between other input parameters and/or design variables.

Table 3. Design variables: cause-effect relationship between other design variables and/or input parameters.



(GWT Data)







(ET & GWT Data)








Next Time

Figure 35. Design Process Algorithm






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