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Utah State University researchers help design a new kind of dam

Published: Tuesday, March 25 2014 4:20 p.m. MDT

Blake Tullis, associate professor at Utah State Universitys Water Research Lab, talks about the model dam USU is working on March 24, 2014, in Logan. The lab is finding solutions for the Army Corps of Engineers as it designs the Lake Isabella Dam near Bakersfield, Calif.

Mike Anderson, Deseret News

LOGAN — Data gathered from a miniature dam at Utah State University could be used to design dams across the country and around the world.

Seeing the water flow through the model large enough to cover a few garages is more than just a research project.

“It’s not like being a kid in the gutter,” Blake Tullis, associate professor in USU’s Water Research Lab, said while standing in the middle of the dam. “It’s just we have a much bigger cutter here, and the kids are a lot older.”

Researchers at USU's Water Research Lab are finding solutions for the Army of Corps Engineers as they design the Lake Isabella Dam near Bakersfield, Calif. Officials say the current reservoir might not hold up to flood conditions. It was built in 1953, about 42 miles northeast of Bakersfield.

The project looks to address overtopping, seismic and seepage issues identified with Isabella Lake’s main and auxiliary dams to reduce the likelihood of dam failure.

USU researchers are using the model dam, 1/45th the size of the real thing, to figure out if the design will work.

"Quite often seeing is believing," Tullis said.

Engineers are using a zigzag pattern called a labyrinth weir, which allows for more surface area in a smaller space.

"This particular design hasn't been done before," Tullis explained. "There's nothing in the guidebooks to give them a guideline as to how this is going to work."

By building the model, designers can find design flaws before they actually build the prototype.

"It turns into cost savings," Tullis said, "savings in the prototype construction, because they can lower their factor of safety. They can actually know what they're designing for instead of guessing."

A team with the Army Corps of Engineers is hoping researchers at USU can help save the project a lot of money by running the small-scale model. The model took eight weeks to build and cost roughly $200,000.

Construction on the new dam in California is set to begin in 2017 and will cost between $400 million and $600 million, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Still, Tullis said his job is about more than crunching numbers and looking for problems.

"The fact that the Army Corps of Engineers used our design papers, our research information to come up with a new design, and now we're validating that, it's pretty rewarding to be changing engineering practice with our applied research at Utah State University," he said.

This type of research is already helping the state of Utah. A similar dam tested at USU is being used for the Millsite Dam, set to begin construction within the coming year in Emery County.

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com

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