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SITES Gives Designers Insight Into Best Dam Design

By Hank Becker
February 3, 2000

The 50-acre Agricultural Research Service Hydraulic Engineering Research Laboratory in Stillwater, Okla., has been long recognized worldwide for modeling, designing and engineering hydraulic structures for agriculture. Now the lab is set to play one of its greatest roles--assisting in the rehabilitation and revitalization of thousands of U.S. earthen dams.

America's countryside is dotted with small dams. Unlike those along rivers, these dams protect the nation's watersheds. Many serve as municipal water supplies. They also prevent floods; provide water for irrigation, recreation, fish and wildlife habitats and groundwater recharge; and improve water quality. Annually, these watersheds provide Americans with more than $800 million in benefits.

According to ARS hydraulic engineer Darrel M. Temple, many of the 10,000 flood- control structures, constructed with the assistance of USDA, were designed to have a 50-year service life. About two-thirds were designed before 1962 to protect communities and rural lands.

Today, many of the dams are in urgent need of revitalization and rehabilitation. Many no longer work as efficiently as they should. Over the next 10 years, more than 1,000 will need significant repairs and modification.

To rehabilitate these dams, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service will need to rely on ARS's current research, expertise and the database amassed by scientists at the Stillwater laboratory over 60 years. The two agencies are cooperatively developing both technologies for rehabilitating and revitalizing the dams and software to apply the technologies to engineering problems--called SITES (not an acronym).

SITES combines the principles of geology, hydrology, soil science and physics to predict the performance of spillways. The software predicts how an earthen spillway will perform and evaluates its potential for failure. Future versions will incorporate current research to predict the damage that results from embankment overtopping.

For more information about SITES, see the February issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is USDA's chief research arm.

Scientific contact: Darrel M. Temple, ARS Hydraulic Engineering Research Laboratory, Stillwater, Okla., phone (405) 624-4135, ext. 226, fax (405) 624-4136,