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Dam Model Provides Real-life Experience

Thursday, Apr. 24, 2014

researchers and model dam at Utah Water Research Lab

Blake Tullis (left) and Rhen Thurgood (right) examine the model dam at the USU Water Research Lab. The model simulates a dam in California and is one-third the size of a football field. (Kylee Larsen photo from the USU Statesman Online)

The Student Life section of Utah State Today highlights work written by the talented student journalists at Utah State University. Each week, the editor selects a story that has been published in The Utah Statesman or the Hard News Café or both for inclusion in Utah State Today.

Dam Model Provides Real-life Experience

By Maile Burnett, staff writer, The Utah Statesman, Thursday, April 24, 2014

A USU model dam is providing data and research about a new design for the Isabella Dam in California, giving engineering students the opportunity to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real-life problem.

Rhen Thurgood, a graduate student in civil engineering who is on the dam research team, said the dam, located at USU’s Water Research Lab, is one-third the size of a football field and a 1:45 scale model of the actual Isabella Dam.

Isabella Dam does not meet the standards for flood-safety, Thurgood said. In the event of a massive flood, the dam wouldn’t have the needed capacity to release extra water safely.

Blake Tullis, associate professor in civil and environmental engineering, said the flood estimates are based on statistics. The worst possible flood estimate would have a water flow of 506,000 cubic feet per second, Tullis said. If this were to happen, there is the small town of Isabella near the dam and the city of Bakersfield down the canyon where the water would flow.

“If the probable maximum flood happened, Bakersfield would be in trouble,” Tullis said.

They test the model at the Water Research Lab at this maximum flood level, channeling the water from First Dam and back to the Logan River.

Thurgood said working on the model gives him a head-start in the real world. Being able to work on the model, collect and analyze data, design, and build is a valuable experience for a later career.

Mitch Dabbling, also a civil engineer, will graduate at the end of this semester with his master’s and has a job waiting for him as a water engineer. Dabbling said this hands-on experience was instrumental in his interviews. It set him apart and showed he knew how to apply it to real-life problems.

“It’s not sitting in a classroom,” he said. “It’s doing something that matters.”

Tullis said the Millsite Dam near Ferron, Utah, has also benefitted from the research of labyrinth weirs, the type of dam being tested. The Millsite Dam is undergoing construction this year.

“What’s so great about this is a lot of our research is going straight into Utah,” Tullis said.

Tullis said the design of the dam, an arced labyrinth weir, was researched and developed by graduate students at USU. The purpose of the dam is to discharge flood waters more slowly than the current dam would if water flooded over it or the dam broke. The zig-zagging walls allow for more water to flow over the top and into an emergency release channel, Tullis said.

The research team just finished making modifications to the dam. The first model was tested, and they found the channel was not deep enough, Thurgood said. With the new modifications, they expect this model to be the blueprint for the new Isabella Dam.

Dabbling said the changes are why these studies are done. While it’s expensive to build the models, it’s a lot cheaper to build and modify one than to build the actual dam and do it wrong, Dabbling said. The model is built as accurately as possible to match the landscape around Isabella Dam. If something fails on a dam, the liability comes back to the way it was built and the care taken to make sure it was safe, Dabbling said.

“If we’re an inch off in here, that’s four feet off in the real world,” Dabbling said.

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