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USU's miniature dam could have huge results for communities' futures

By Michael Anderson | Posted - Mar 24th, 2014 @ 9:30pm

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LOGAN — In a space that could fill several average-sized garages, researchers at Utah State University can pump hundreds of gallons of water through a model dam.

"Quite often seeing is believing," associate professor Blake Tullis said.

By building a dam, one-45th the size of the real thing, Tullis can watch for design flaws and make adjustments. A team with the Army Corps of Engineers is hoping researchers at USU can help them save a lot of money by running the small-scale model. The model took eight weeks and cost about $200,000 to build.

"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."

The structure is being designed as part of the project to replace the Lake Isabella Dam near Bakersfield, Calif. Engineers believe the current dam might not hold up to severe flood or earthquake conditions. Construction is set to begin in 2017. A proposed new design would build zig-zags into the walls, which then curve out into an arc.

"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."

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

"It's a lot like being a kid in a gutter," Tullis said, smiling. "It's just we have a much bigger gutter here, and the kids are a lot older."

Tullis enjoys his work, but he says what makes it rewarding is seeing newly tested designs ultimately work in the real world.

"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," Tullis said.

Tullis says research performed in the water lab will also be used to help reservoirs in Utah. A similar dam design was tested there that will be used for the new Millsite Dam in Emery County. Construction there is set to begin within the coming year.


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