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An overview of previous studies and the models produced

Gregory Lecointe

The University of Birmingham, School of Civil Engineering

Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK


This paper summarises the work undertaken as a three months MSc project at the
University of Birmingham, UK, for HR Wallingford Ltd., reviewing previous studies
and the models of breaching mechanisms. This investigation involved data collection
and contact with investigators of the topic, a technical literature review of breach
mechanism studies, a review of existing numerical models, and physical model
experiments. It resulted in an overview of the topic, highlighting extensively the
organisations and universities involved in this field of research. All the parameters
involved in the breaching process were investigated, such as uses and features of
embankments, geotechnical issues of the structures, failure classification, breach
features, and currently used hydraulic and erosion theories. The different methods used
to compute the breach shapes and outflows were then studied, involving case data
analysis and physically based modelling. A review of 15 conceptual models was
undertaken and their components compared. Finally, some simple physical experiments
were carried out, simulating both cross-channel dam and river bank failures, using sand
only. Interesting differences were observed between the two breaching processes.
The conclusions from this study are:
• The gaps in the understanding of breach mechanism concern principally erosion
theories, such as headcut and lateral scouring phenomena, and inner material
geotechnics involved in the initiation of the failure
• A new conceptual model construction should focus on cohesive materials, involving
significant scale model experiments, and should investigate river bank failure
1) Introduction

The study of breaching mechanisms in embankments (see Appendix) is linked to

structural design risk analysis. The failure of major retention dams can lead to
catastrophic consequences as populations tend to settle in floodplains. There are many
dramatic examples. The failure of the Teton Dam, Idaho. USA, 1976, killed 11 people
and caused major damage by releasing more than 300 millions m3; the river Mississippi
and Missouri flooding in 1993 caused the failure of many levees which protected
hundreds of km2 of floodplains. More recently, the river Yangtze flood has killed
several thousands of people and left millions homeless.

In order to forecast such events, many studies have tried to model the flood wave in a
valley downstream of the dam involved in the failure. Flood routing methods have been
applied to the reservoirs storage, and to the outflows resulting from the failure.
However, the most difficult parameters to assess appear to be the breach outflow and the
time of failure involved.

The purpose of this study was to review the knowledge in this particular field and the
modelling tools available. It contained the following steps:

- Data collection and contact with investigators of the topic

- Technical literature review of mechanism studies
- Review of existing numerical models
- Physical model experiments

2) Data collection and investigation of the topic

The first step carried out in this study was to collect data and to contact others
researching this field, in order to gather the widest amount of material as possible.

The means used were the Internet, personal contacts and E-mail contacts world-wide
with specialists involved in the research of breach formation. The result was an
extensive overview of the topic giving a picture of the current concerns in this field.

Among the wealth of organisations and academic institutions involved in breaching

parameter research (see Table 1), the CADAM group (European Concerted Action
program on DAM break), the US Bureau of reclamation and the NPDP (US National
Performance of Dams Program) appear to be the most active.

3) Technical literature review

In order to have the greatest understanding of the theoretical aspects of breaching

failures, topics from the structural features to the inner mechanisms which occur have
been analysed.

They are:
a) Dam and embankment design

In order to understand failure occurrence, a review of water retention structure features

was necessary.

It firstly resulted in a definition of the main uses of such structures, such as river flood
protection, coastal protection, water retention and irrigation, or hydro-electric power

Then, construction designs were reviewed in order to highlight their geotechnics and
behaviour in case of breaching events. Dam building types were outlined as purely
homogeneous, diaphragm core, or zoned embankment ones.

A section was dedicated to pure geotechnics of the structures, as this particular aspect is
closely linked to the failure mechanisms. It highlighted concepts such as shearing stress
and pore water pressure, and provided a description of their interaction with breach flow
erosion, such as internal erosion, material cohesion, sliding effects, or reinforcement by
vegetation cover.

b) Types of dam failure

Given the previous investigation, failure mechanisms had to be listed as they led to the
breach formation. Four different processes were pointed out:

 Overtopping, involving a reservoir level higher than the dam crest and,
therefore, the erosion of the structure by flow scouring effect
 Piping, resulting of the removal of soil particles in the inner body of the dam
by the erosive action of the seepage flow.
 Macro instability, involving a lack of shear stress concerning large volume of
material in the body of the dam, and leading to sliding of the structure side
 Micro instability which involves the same types of mechanism as the previous
failure but on local effects only. It creates inner weakness of the structures
that could lead to piping or sliding failures.

The two first mechanisms are the most commonly encountered. The two last ones are
closely linked to the inner geotechnics of the structures and are linked to the inner
initiation of the failure process. This last point was highlighted as one of the most
important gaps in our understanding of breaching mechanisms.

c) Breach formation process

The features of the actual breach mechanism were then investigated (see Figure 1).

The first section defined the principal parameters studied, such as the breach shape,
depth, width and side slope factors, and the breaching time of initiation and formation.

The general process observed was also described as having two main phases. The dam is
firstly eroded at its weakest point with a high vertical erosion rate. Then, a transition
between vertical and lateral erosion occurs and the breach widens until all the structure
is flushed or the upstream reservoir is emptied enough for the erosion process to stop.

The hydraulic features of the breach were investigated, describing the discharge regimes
involved. The flow becomes supercritical over the breach crest and erodes the
downstream side of the dam creating a breaching channel. The length of this channel is
controlled by the formation of a downstream toe pivot where the regime becomes

d) Sediment transport

Finally, the sediment transport theories involved in the breaching process were
reviewed. This review led to the conclusion that most of the usual river bed load
equations used should not be applied in breaching flow conditions. Headcut and lateral
erosion processes were highlighted as key phenomena. This pointed out our lack of
understanding and overall comprehension of the erosion process.

4) Review of existing numerical models

Two different approaches in terms of breaching modelling were highlighted: case study
analysis and physically based models.

The case study analysis consisted of comparing the theoretical parameters of a

simulation to those which were involved in actual cases.

The review of these models was based on the work of Tony L. Wahl, 1998, in Prediction
of Embankment Dam parameters - A literature review and needs assessments. Given
this review it was concluded that such methods of investigation were not reliable,
considering their lack of descriptive analysis and the important influence of the quality
of the data used.

A review of 15 physically based models was subsequently carried out, including studies
produced from 1965 to 1998 (see Table 2). For each of them, theories and equations
used in terms of breach shapes, sediment transport and discharge were given. The
comparison of the components contained in each model outlined gaps in erosion
mechanism and geotechnics of the breaching formation.

5) Physical model experiments

The last part of the project concerned physical modelling in order to aid understanding,
to validate the reviewed literature parameters, and to investigate new areas. Therefore,
two series of tests were undertaken: cross-channel dam modelling and river bank
simulation modelling.

As a primary assessment, the tests were undertaken using sand in a water re-circulating

The first modelling phase was carried out with decreasing reservoir level as the water
flowed out through the breach. The main problems faced were due to the seepage flow
through the structure. The shapes obtained agreed with the type of shapes mentioned by
Coleman and Andrews for the NCP-BREACH model.

The second modelling phase simulated river bank failure. To proceed with these
experiments the flume was separated by a dam along its length, forming the main stream
on one side and the floodplain on the other side. Differences were observed in the
breach formation compared to the previous set of tests. The water flow into the initial
notch appeared to take an reverse direction to the main stream flow, until the breach was
widened. A turbulent erosion front was created on the downstream side of the breach,
but the upstream side was not eroded (see Figure 2).

6) Conclusions

Given the review undertaken, the following conclusions are drawn:

- The hydraulics of the process can be considered as being reasonably well

- The sediment transport analysis suffers from a lack of knowledge, especially in
terms of headcut and lateral erosion equations.
- Potential improvements in the comprehension of the initial breach formation are
linked to an understanding of the geotechnical aspects of the mechanism.

The recommendations for the construction of a new conceptual model are as follows:

- The model should focus on the technical points previously mentioned.

- Cohesive materials and actual structures should be studied. Significant scale
model experiments should therefore be created.
- The complexity of the model in terms of data requirements should not be a
problem, considering that it will be used only as a design tool.
- River banks could be an interesting case to study and model, as they appeared to
be different from the cases modelled so far.

7) Acknowledgements

This study was carried out at the University of Birmingham, England, UK, as a three
months MSc Industrial project for HR Wallingford, and supervised by Prof. D.W.
Knight and Dr. Paul Samuels.


Coleman, S. E., Andrews, D. and Webby, G., 1998: Embankment Failure Due to
Overtopping Flow, Final report, Foundation for Research, Science and Technology,
Contract No WCS502, 18 pp.

Froehlich, D. C., 1995, Embankment dam breach parameters revisited, Water Resources
Engineering, ASCE, San Antonio, Texas, USA, 1995, 887-891.
Knight, D. J., 1997, Embankment dams worldwide - Lessons and personal reflections
from the past 40 years, Dams and Reservoirs, 7, 2, 17-25; 7, 3, 28-36; 8, 1, 24-31.

Lecointe, G. D., 1998, Breaching Mechanisms of Embankments, MSc project , School

of Civil Engineering, The University of Birmingham, UK, 102 pp.

Singh, V. P., 1996, Dam Breach Modeling Tecnology, Dordrecht, London: Kluwer

United States Department of the Interior, 1961, Design of Small Dams, Bureau of
Reclamation, Washington, 611 pp.

Visser, P. J., 1995, Application of sediment transport formulae to sand-dike breach

erosion, Communication on Hydraulic and Geotechnical Engineering, Faculty of Civil
Engineering, TU Delft (Delft University of Engineering), Netherlands, 94-7, 78 pp.

Wahl, T. L, 1998., Prediction of Embankment Dam Breach Parameters: A literature

Review and Needs Assessment, Dam Safety Research Report, US Department of the
Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Dam Safety office, Denver, CO, USA, 60pp.

Walder, J. S., O’Connor, J. E., 1997, Methods for predicting peak discharges of flood
caused by failure of natural and constructed earthen dams, Water Resources Research,
American Geophysical Union, 33, 10, 2337-2348.
TABLE 1 Organisations and Universities involved in breaching research


Finnish Environment Institute, Helsinki

Illinois State Water Survey

NOAA (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
HRL (Hydraulic Research Laboratory)
USBR (US Bureau of Reclamation) / Dam Safety


AGU (American Geophysical Union)

Army Corps of Engineers

National Inventory of Dam Database
ASDSO (Association of State Dams Safety
CADAM (European Concerted Action program on
DAM Break)
HR Wallingford
EDF (Electricite De France) E-mail:
LNH (Laboratoire National d’Hydraulique)
FEMA (US Federal Emergency Management
Agency) / Dam program
ICOLD (International Comity On Large Dams)

LNEC (Laboratório Nacional de Engenharia Civil,

Dam-break flood risk management in Portugal
NPDP (US National Performance of Dams
NRCS (US Natural Resources Conservation
Service) on/sites/sites.html
Structure Site Analysis Program (SITES model)
Washington State Department of Ecology / Dam
Safety Section


Auckland University, New Zealand

Birmingham University, UK E-mail:
Delft Technical University, The Netherlands

University of the Federal Armed Forces

Institute of Hydrosciences, Munich, Germany BauV/institute/inst6.1/inst6_1.htm
Leeds University, UK

Louisiana State University/ Civil Engineering, USA

TABLE 2 Summary of the different components of the models
Models Breach shape Sediment transport Discharge Others
Cristofano, 1965 Trapezoidal Empirical Broad crested weir -
Harris - Wagner, 1967 Parabolic with 45° side slopes Schocklitsch equation Broad crested weir -
BRDAM, 1977-1981 Parabolic with 45° side slopes Schocklitsch equation Broad crested weir Reservoir routing
Channel routing
Ponce - Tsivoglou, 1981 Model input Exner equation Relation between width and flow rate Reservoir routing
Constant width Meyer-Peter and Muller formulae Manning equation
Lou, 1981 Cosine Duboy equation Dynamic wave Reservoir routing
Einstein suspended load rate Tailwater effects
Kinetic energy
Nogueira, 1981 Cosine Modified Meyer-Peter and Muller Dynamic wave Reservoir routing
formulae Side slopes fall
FLOW SIM 1 and 2, Rectangular Fixed linear breach erosion Broad crested weir Reservoir routing
Undated Triangular Schocklitsch equation Channel routing
DAMBRK, 1984 Rectangular Fixed linear breach erosion Broad crested weir Reservoir routing
Triangular Channel routing
Trapezoidal Tailwater effects
SMPDBK, 1984 Rectangular - Broad crested weir Channel routing
BREACH, 1984 Rectangular Meyer-Peter and Muller formulae Broad crested weir for overtopping Reservoir routing
Triangular modified by Smart Orifice for piping Side slope fall
Trapezoidal Duboy equation Manning equation Tailwater effects
Vegetated cover
BEED, 1987 Rectangular Einstein - Brown formulae Broad crested weir Reservoir routing
Triangular Bagnold equation Side slope fall
Trapezoidal Tailwater effects
Visser, 1994 Trapezoidal Bagnold - Visser formulae Supercritical flow over the crest Non-cohesive materials only
Toe ordinate
SITES, 1996 Model input Temple headcut erosion theory Model input Spillway failure
Headcut profile Vegetated cover
Walder-O’Connor, 1997 Dimensionless formulation of the DAMBRK breach module
NCP-BREACH, 1998 Parabolic NCRH equation Parabolic semi-cylinder with tapered Non-cohesive materials only
Description at dam crest and breach end. Toe ordinate
crest Experimental based analysis.
breach width breach depth or height

breach side slope factor

breach shape

Physical parameters involved in breaching mechanisms

subcritical flow super critical flow

different erosion rates zones

reservoir level


dam crest downstream toe pivot

outer slope Z
inner slope

Hydraulic flow regimes and erosion zones in overtopping process

(after Powledge et al., 1989 and Visser, 1995)


Upstream breach side Downstream breach side Upstream breach side Downstream breach side

Two chronological phases observed in river bank failure modelling


(extracted from NPDP Digital Image Database)

Pic. 1, Vincent II dam, June 9-13, 1995 - Upstream side of the breach section

Pic. 2, Vincent II dam, June 9-13, 1995 - Breach from the downtsream toe