Sedimentation Problems with Dams

Sedimentation Problems with Dams

How dams trap sediment in rivers

All rivers contain sediments: a river, in effect, can be considered a body of flowing sediments as much as one of flowing water. When a river is stilled behind a dam, the sediments it contains sink to the bottom of the reservoir. The proportion of a river’s total sediment load captured by a dam – known as its "trap efficiency" – approaches 100 per cent for many projects, especially those with large reservoirs. As the sediments accumulate in the reservoir, so the dam gradually loses its ability to store water for the purposes for which it was built. Every reservoir loses storage to sedimentation although the rate at which this happens varies widely. Despite more than six decades of research, sedimentation is still probably the most serious technical problem faced by the dam industry.

Professor K. Mahmood of George Washington University in Washington, DC, "roughly estimated" for a 1987 World Bank study that around 50 cubic kilometres of sediment – nearly one per cent of global reservoir storage capacity – is trapped behind the world’s dams every year. In total, calculated Mahmood, by 1986 around 1,100 cubic kilometres of sediment had accumulated in the world’s reservoirs, consuming almost one–fifth of global storage capacity.

The rate of reservoir sedimentation depends mainly on the size of a reservoir relative to the amount of sediment flowing into it: a small reservoir on an extremely muddy river will rapidly lose capacity; a large reservoir on a very clear river may take centuries to lose an appreciable amount of storage. Large reservoirs in the US lose storage capacity at an average rate of around 0.2 per cent per year, with regional variations ranging from 0.5 per cent per year in the Pacific states to just 0.1 per cent in reservoirs in the northeast. Major reservoirs in China lose capacity at an annual rate of 2.3 per cent.

Apart from rapidly filling their reservoirs, sediment–filled rivers also cause headaches for dam operators due to the abrasion of turbines and other dam components. The efficiency of a turbine is largely dependent upon the hydraulic properties of its blades, just as an aeroplane depends on the aerodynamic properties of its wings. The erosion and cracking of the tips of turbine blades by water–borne sand and silt considerably reduces their generating efficiency and can require expensive repairs.