Seepage Through Earth Dams

Contact: Byron Lane 517-281-6821

Dam Safety: Seepage Through Earth Dams 

Contrary to popular opinion, wet areas downstream from dams are not usually natural springs but seepage areas. Even if natural springs exist, they should be treated with suspicion and carefully observed. Flows from groundwater springs in existence prior to the reservoir would probably increase due to the pressure caused by a pool of water behind the dam. 

All dams have some seepage as the impounded water seeks paths of least resistance through the dam and its foundation. Seepage must, however, be controlled in both velocity and quantity. 

Seepage can emerge anywhere on the downstream face, beyond the toe, or on the downstream abutments at elevations below normal pool. Seepage may vary in appearance from a "soft", wet area to a flowing "spring". It may show up first as an area where the vegetation is lush and darker green. Cattails, reeds, mosses, and other marsh vegetation may grow in a seepage area. Downstream groin areas (the areas where the downstream face contacts the abutments) should always be inspected closely for signs of seepage. Seepage can also occur along the contact between the embankment and a conduit spillway, drain, or other appurtenance. Slides in the embankment or an abutment may be the result of seepage causing soil saturation or pressures in the soil pores. 

At most dams, some water will seep from the reservoir through the foundation. Where it is not intercepted by a subsurface drain, the seepage will emerge downstream from or at the toe of the embankment. If the seepage forces are large enough, soil will be eroded from the foundation and be deposited in the shape of a cone around the outlet. If these "boils" appear, professional advice should be sought immediately. Seepage flow which is muddy and carrying soil particles may be evidence of "piping" and complete failure of the dam could occur within hours. Piping can occur along a spillway and other conduits through the embankment, and these areas should be closely inspected. Sinkholes that develop on the embankment are signs that piping has begun. A whirlpool in the lake surface may soon follow and then likely a rapid and complete failure of the dam. Emergency procedures, including downstream evacuation, must be implemented if this condition is noted. 

A continuous or sudden drop in the normal lake level may be an indication that seepage is occurring. In this case, one or more locations of flowing water are usually noted downstream from the dam. This condition, in itself, may not be a serious problem, but will require frequent and close monitoring and professional assistance. 

The need for seepage control will depend on the quantity, content, and/or location of the seepage. Controlling the quantity of seepage that occurs after construction is difficult and quite expensive. It is not usually attempted unless drawdown of the pool level has occurred or the seepage is endangering the embankment or appurtenant structures. Typical methods used to control the quantity of seepage are grouting, installation of an upstream blanket, or installation of relief wells. Of these methods, grouting is probably the least effective and it is most applicable to leakage zones in bedrock, abutments, and foundations. All of these methods must be designed and constructed under the supervision of a professional engineer experienced with dams. 

Controlling the content of the seepage or preventing seepage flow from removing soil particles is extremely important. Modern design practice incorporates this control into the embankment through the use of cutoffs, internal filters, and adequate drainage provisions. Control at points of seepage exit can be accomplished after construction by using weighted filters and providing proper drainage. The filter and drainage system should be designed to prevent migration of soil particles and still provide for passage of the seepage flow. The bottom layer of the weighted filter should be 6 to 12 inches of sand placed over the seepage area. The sand layer should be covered with a gravel layer of similar thickness. Larger rock should be placed next to complete the berm. This methods will permit the seepage to drain freely, but prevent piping (removal) of soil particles. The weight of the berm will hold the filter in place and may also provide additional stability to the embankment and/or foundation. 

The location of the seepage or wet area on the embankment or abutment is often a primary concern. Excessive seepage pressure or soil saturation can threaten the stability of the downstream slope of the dam or the abutment slopes. An abutment slide may block or damage the spillway outlet or other appurtenances. In these cases, not only must the seepage be controlled but the area must be dried out. This is sometimes accomplished by installing finger drains (lateral drains for specific locations). Seepage control systems must always be free-draining to be effective. 


Regular monitoring is essential to detect seepage and prevent failure. Without knowledge of the dam's history, the owner or the inspector has no idea whether the seepage condition is in a steady or changing state. It is important to keep written records of points of seepage exit, quantity and content of flow, size of wet area, and type of vegetation for later comparison. Photographs provide invaluable records of seepage. The inspector should always look for increases in flow and evidence of flow carrying soil particles. The control methods described previously are often designed to facilitate observation of flows. At some locations, v-notch weirs can be used to measure flow rates. 

Regular surveillance and maintenance of internal embankment and foundation drainage outlets is also required. Normal maintenance consists of removing any soil or other material that obstructs flow. Internal repair is complicated and often impractical and should not be attempted without professional advice. The rate and content of flow emerging from these outlets should be monitored regularly. 

For additional information please contact: 

Dam Safety Program
DEQ, Water Resources Division
P.O. Box 30458
Lansing, Michigan 48909-7958