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CMU takes on challenge of aging dams

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:48 p.m.
The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers monitors the dam at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from an adjoining road at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers monitors the dam at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from an adjoining road at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Ice fisherman Mark Wolfel of St. Mary's, originally from McKees Rocks, takes a sled with his fishing gear down the boat launch ramp at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the boat launch at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Ice fisherman Mark Wolfel of St. Mary's, originally from McKees Rocks, takes a sled with his fishing gear down the boat launch ramp at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the boat launch at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
The earthen dam holds water back at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the boat launch at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The earthen dam holds water back at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the boat launch at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
The East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the overlook above East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from the overlook above East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
The earthen dam to the right holds water back at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from an adjoining road at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
The earthen dam to the right holds water back at the East Branch Clarion Dam, as seen from an adjoining road at East Branch Lake in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Monitoring equipment is place around the earthen dam at the East Branch Clarion Dam in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Monitoring equipment is place around the earthen dam at the East Branch Clarion Dam in Jones Township in Elk County, as photographed on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Burcu Akinci, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at CMU
Burcu Akinci, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at CMU

The nation's dams are old. Many are substandard, and some are in danger of failure.

That's why a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a system that will help officials identify which high-risk dams need action. The project has stalled because of a lack of funding.

“The aging infrastructure is a big problem,” said Semiha Ergan, a civil and environmental engineering assistant research professor at CMU. “And the last thing you want to do is make an assessment in the dark. You want as much information as you can get, and you can't wait months and months for it.”

The team will focus on embankment dams, which help make reservoirs and are made of impacted soil. The Corps operates 694 dams nationwide. The Pittsburgh District, which covers most of Western Pennsylvania, includes 16 embankment dams.

Using advanced statistical tools, they will look at data collected by sensors at dams, including water pressure levels, seepage rates and any movement in the dam, officials said.

The team will help the Corps organize the data they have on a dam — including visual images and sensory data — and compile it into an “information repository,” said Burcu Akinci, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at CMU.

“They need to pull together data from multiple sources and create a picture of what the dam currently looks like,” Akinci said. “That is the other aspect, to come up with an information model that brings it all together.”

The project began two years ago, Akinci said, and the prototype system has been developed and analysis has been conducted. “Now we're hoping to rejuvenate it soon through additional sources for funding,” she said.

The original funding came from the Army Corps Risk Management Center, officials said. The Army Corps of Engineers did not contract for more research “due to funding priorities and budget constraints,” said Christopher J. Kelly, a civil engineer with the Corps.

“We are currently in the process of finding the right venues to get federal research funding, such as through (the) National Science Foundation,” Akinci said.

The Society of Civil Engineers recently gave dams in the United States a D grade.

When the team reviews Corps-controlled dams, “we're optimistic we'll see positive results,” Kelly said. “These dams have been in service for many years, and we hope to have them continue in service. And there's no reason we can't, provided we maintain them properly and keep abreast of any changes in their performance.”

In the Pittsburgh District, the East Branch Dam on Clarion River Lake in Elk County, is of particular concern. Built in 1952, the dam is credited with preventing tens of millions of dollars in flood damage, but has a history of seepage, which can destabilize a dam. Repairs are planned.

Nationwide, the system will help officials identify “any anomalies that may indicate problems,” said Mario Berges, a Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor at CMU. “The models and data analysis techniques we are developing will ultimately allow the Army Corps of Engineers to monitor multiple dams at once.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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