Unsteady seepage behavior of an earthfill dam during drought-flood cycles

Ziyang Li*, Wei Ye, Miroslav Marence, Jeremy D. Bricker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
192 Downloads (Pure)


Climate change with extreme hydrological conditions, such as drought and flood, bring new challenges to seepage behavior and the stability of earthfill dams. Taking a drought-stricken earthfill dam of China as an example, the influence of drought-flood cycles on dam seepage behavior is analyzed. This paper includes a clay sample laboratory experiment and an unsteady finite element method seepage simulation of the mentioned dam. Results show that severe drought causes cracks on the surface of the clay soil sample. Long-term drought causes deeper cracks and induces a sharp increase of suction pressure, indicating that the cracks would become channels for rain infiltration into the dam during subsequent rainfall, increasing the potential for internal erosion and decreasing dam stability. Measures to prevent infiltration on the dam slope surface are investigated, for the prevention of deep crack formation during long lasting droughts. Unsteady seepage indicators including instantaneous phreatic lines, equipotential lines and pore pressure gradient in the dam, are calculated and analyzed under two assumed conditions with different reservoir water level fluctuations. Results show that when the water level changes rapidly, the phreatic line is curved and constantly changing. As water level rises, equipotential lines shift upstream, and the pore pressure gradient in the dam’s main body is larger than that of steady seepage. Furthermore, the faster the water level rises, the larger the pore pressure gradient is. This may cause internal erosion. Furthermore, the case of a cracked upstream slope is modelled via an equivalent permeability coefficient, which shows that the pore pressure gradient in the zone beneath the cracks increases by 5.9% at the maximum water level; this could exacerbate internal erosion. In addition, results are in agreement with prior literature that rapid drawdown of the reservoir water level is detrimental to the stability of the upstream slope based on embankment slope stability as calculated by the Simplified Bishop Method. It is concluded that fluctuations of reservoir water level should be strictly controlled during drought-flood cycles; both the drawdown rate and the fill rate must be regulated to avoid the internal erosion of earthfill dams.
Original languageEnglish
Article number17
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalGeosciences (Switzerland)
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Crack
  • Drought and flood cycle
  • Earthfill dam
  • Embankment slop stability
  • Pore pressure gradient
  • Unsteady seepage


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