Utah Water Research Lab team plays ‘model’ role in repair of Oroville Dam spillway (with video)

LOGAN — Located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the <a href=”http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/facilities/Oroville/LakeDam.cfm” target=”_blank”>Oroville Dam</a> is the tallest dam in the United States and is one of the largest earth-filled dams in the world. Critical to the Golden State’s <a href=”http://www.water.ca.gov/” target=”_blank”>Department of Water Resources</a> (DWR) and the <a href=”http://www.water.ca.gov/swp/” target=”_blank”>California State Water Project</a>, the dam plays a key role in agriculture, hydroelectric power and municipal/industrial water.

In February 2017, the Dam’s spillway sustained crippling damage due to severe flooding, prompting the emergency evacuation of nearly 200,000 people living downstream along the Feather River as a precautionary measure. While the worst-case scenario, a catastrophic breach of the dam, did not occur, the DWR began working immediately to assess and mitigate the threat, initiate repairs and develop a lasting solution. The <a href=”https://uwrl.usu.edu/” target=”_blank”>Utah Water Research Laboratory</a> (UWRL) at Utah State University was commissioned to be involved with the project on a hands-on level, tasked with constructing a physical model of the failed Oroville Dam spillway and the replacement spillway design. Data from simulations being conducted on the model is being used in the spillway’s reconstruction.

“They saw our capabilities, potential, our resources and what we could do and asked if we were interested in being a part of the team to basically rebuild, reconstruct, repair the spillway and put it back into service,” said Dr. Michael Johnson, lead project engineer, “so that’s how we got the contract, and we’ve been working on it ever since.”

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Johnson is a USU research professor and principal investigator on the project, sharing the responsibility with Dr. Zachary Sharp, a UWRL research engineer. The UWRL was awarded a $277,000 noncompetitive contract to construct the model, run the tests, prepare a report and, said Johnson, “coordinate all of the work that goes in to leading a study from start to end.”

Dr. Mac McKee is the director of the UWRL. He said the Oroville Dam spillway project is significant because it recognizes the historically established capabilities of the UWRL and validates the role physical modelling plays in solving complex water flow problems.  He said the UWRL has built models of dam, spillways and energy dissipaters all around the world and has a stellar reputation. To be awarded a no-bid contract, he said, is especially telling.

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“They just picked up the phone and called us. That says something right there,” McKee said.  “We’re very proud of what these guys do. In our shop here, we’ve got Mike and Zach and other world class hydraulics engineers. In a time when everybody else is getting out of the physical modeling business because it is very expensive, we’re doing more and more of it all the time and we’re really, really proud of what these guys do. They bring good recognition to the University, to the water lab. We don’t get a herd of press every time we build a model, so this is indicative. This problem has gotten international attention, and we’re just proud to be a part of the solution.”

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Over the course of just 40 days, a 15-member UWRL team of engineers, technicians and students used wood, steel, concrete and acrylic to construct a 1:50 scale model of the Oroville Dam spillway. The model is 100 feet long and 60 feet wide and simulates a prototype dam and spillway area of more than 4.4 million square feet. At full flow, the model supplies just over 7,030 gallons of water per minute to simulate the Oroville Dam spillway’s probable maximum flood rate of 277,000 cubic feet per second.

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“The most interesting part about doing this is that it was an actual, real-time issue,” said Mark Cannon, a research engineer who was involved with the planning and the setup of the model.  “We were able to see it on the news. We were able to see all the destruction it did and so when we got the contract and started building it, we were actually able to, in more real time, kind of get that satisfaction in actually seeing how it looked when it was damaged, when it broke, and how similar our model looked to the actual issue. That way, when we modeled the fix for it, we were very confident in what we were doing. We knew that what we were going to propose was going to work well for them.”

The California DWR has negotiated a $275 million contract with <a href=”http://www.kiewit.com/locations/united-states/alaska/kiewit-infrastructure-west-co/” target=”_blank”>Kiewit Infrastructure West Co.</a> of Omaha, Nebraska, to rebuild the lower third of the Oroville Dam spillway chute under a rigorous construction schedule. A crew expected to reach 500 will work 20-hour days, six days a week through November in an effort to have the project complete before the San Joaquin Valley’s rainy season begins. In the meantime, Johnson said a team of engineers is conducting a forensic study to assess what caused the spillway to fail.

“The failure in this case was the main structure itself,” he said. “Something moved, something shifted, so the water was not going where it was intended to go. We don’t know the answers yet, but there’s a team of expert they’re going to send to find those answers. And this model is a tool that’s being used by the design team to help them know what to expect to keep safety first and foremost so the dam will continue to function and operate safely.”

Matt Jensen, public relations specialist with the USU College of Engineering, said the project brings tremendous visibility to Utah State University and the College of Engineering, demonstrating that the university’s faculty and engineering researchers are among the best in the world when it comes to water resources engineering. He said the data collected from the simulations run on the model will help verify the repair and reconstruction solutions being implemented by the DWR.

“This is a very newsworthy model,” Jensen said. “Water resource engineers and dam experts all over the world have their eyes focused on what’s happening at Oroville Dam, and there are conversations happening in academia, in professional engineering—so to bring in the water lab on this project demonstrates that our researchers and our experts really have the background and the clout to work on a major project like this.”

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1 Comment

  • M Shabbir June 10, 2018 at 11:20 am Reply

    Testing along with both Spillways at a same time to see the impacts of high flood situations physically & practically how to manage and behave when over Topping the Orville Dam as per the past scenario on that time could be a disaster but safe us to rescue from high potential of water pressure releasing towards River side easily or something wrong, find out the results among water pressure reflect on (Embankments & Construction Zone) after the completion of its rebuild works showing the positive response or any other issue could be raise now???

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