Volume XVII Issue 2

Teton dam was designed and built using modern standards in the 1970s. However, the 405ft (123.4m) high earthfill dam failed during its first filling on 5 June 1976. The failure of the Teton Dam received considerable scrutiny from engineering experts. Failure mechanisms suggested included hydraulic fracture, internal erosion, wet-seam theory, and defects in the abutment rock. None of the investigations, however, were able to explain satisfactorily why the dam breached when the reservoir reached el. 5301.7ft (1616m) and only in the vicinity of Sta. 14+00 on the right abutment. The investigation here is focused on this crucial aspect of the failure using the modern framework of fundamental ‘state based soil mechanics’. According to this framework, highly compacted soils of low plasticity in an environment of low liquidity index and low confining stress would crack in the presence of high shear stresses. The impervious core (Zone-1) of Teton was constructed of uniform clayey silt of low plasticity and highly compacted, and was therefore prone to such a possibility. This paper describes the details of the theory, the investigation, and the conclusions arrived at regarding the potential initiation of Teton failure. Finite element analysis carried out using state based parameters indicate the presence of deep open transverse vertical crack(s) in the core (Zone-1) to a maximum depth of about 32ft (9.8m) from the crest only in the right abutment and in the vicinity of Sta. 14+00. We conclude that once the water level in the reservoir rose above el. 5300ft (1615m) in the early hours of 5 June 1976 water flowed through the internal open vertical crack(s), which slowly eroded the crack into a large tunnel leading to the major breach of the dam hours later.

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