Partnerships for International Research and Education

Impacts of Levee Breach and Dam Failure

Dams and levees are constructed throughout the world for water supply, irrigation, navigation, flood protection, electrical power, and water-based recreation.These hydraulic structures are of great benefit to the society; however, inundation caused by dam failure and levee breach has disastrous consequence. The failure of a large dam has the potential to cause more death and destruction than the failure of any other man-made structure.Large flood waves resulting from these failures commonly cause loss of life, human suffering, and destruction of properties and ecosystems for hundreds of miles in the inundated valley. Depending on the terrain, the flood waves can lead to extensive scour and erosion, and large-scale movement of sediment and debris. Potential failure of tailing dams can cause significant damage to the environment by quick dispersion of hazardous materials and contaminants including heavy metals. A typical example of dam failure is the 1976 Teton dam break in Southern Idaho which caused a loss of thirteen lives and economic damage of approximately one billion dollars even though the downstream area had limited development and was sparsely populated. Not only this, the flood wave generated from this dam failure triggered over two hundred landslides, thus significantly changing the morphology of the downstream canyon. Flood waves resulting from a levee breach can be less dramatic than that originating from a dam failure. Nevertheless, the damage from a levee breach can be extensive if the breach occurs near an urban area. A case in point is the recent flooding in the City of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The damage caused by the levee breaches to the city and its populace far exceeded the immediate destruction from the landfall of the hurricane.

Large flood waves resulting from the failure of dams and levees cause loss of life, human suffering, and destruction of properties and ecosystems for hundreds of miles, e.g., the Malpasset dam failure in France, Teton dam failure in the USA and the levee breaches in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina. The breach formation, propagation of flood waves and the erosion and deposition of bed material have been investigated individually in the past because of lack of facilities or very specialized individual expertise although these are strongly inter-dependent phenomena. The proposed research on erosion, deposition, and transport of sediment including the mobilization of the bed following levee or dam failure will be conducted in a unified manner to provide a complete and accurate picture of resulting flood hazard and the associated geomorphic impacts.

The educational plan includes the exchange of faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, internationalization of water resources curriculum, field visits, and development of postgraduate courses. Each year 10 undergraduate and 5 graduate students, one research professor, one post-doctoral fellow, and several American and European researchers will participate in the project activities.

Two European institutions — the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium (UCL), and the Instituto Superior Tecnico, Lisbon, Portugal (IST) have joined as partners in this effort. Unique laboratory facilities, technical expertise and experience of senior personnel, and the ability to provide quality educational, cultural and social experiences of these prominent institutions will significantly contribute to this project. University of Puerto Rico and South Carolina State University are also involved as active partners.

The results of the proposed research will be useful in planning for emergencies following dam or levee failure and the development of strategies for the mitigation of adverse ecological and morphological impacts. Exchange visits and collaborative research and educational activities will enhance the research capabilities of USC while producing globally engaged professionals, approximately ten doctoral and fifty undergraduate students, two postdoctoral fellows and several faculty members, especially females and from underrepresented groups. Two senior and two junior participants are from under-represented groups and will serve as role models.