The First Two Calaveras Dams
As Californians, we live with the possibility of earthquakes. Here at the Calaveras Dam Replacement Project, we are constructing a new earth and rock-fill dam that will be strengthened to resist the seismic forces and withstand a 7.25 magnitude earthquake.
Dam technology has evolved since we completed the original dam in 1925. In a two-part series, we’re going to take a look at how our predecessors built the previous Calaveras Dam, which has served us well for 90 years, and what new technologies and construction methods we are using for the new dam to be ready for the next big quake.
The original Calaveras Dam (construction spanned 1913 to 1918) was constructed using the so-called hydraulic fill method. Basically, to create the impermeable 'puddle core', fine soils were washed off the surrounding slopes with high pressure water cannons, and this slurry was collected between two 'training' dikes on both sides of the dam’s core.
During gold mining in the Sierra foothills, this method was used to build much smaller dams to impound water for hydraulic mining. But scaling this method up to this size had some serious problems.
The first Calaveras Dam, nearly complete in 1918. It was the largest earthen dam in the world at the time.
The process did not allow excess water in the puddle core to dissipate, and this extra weight exceeded the ability of the upstream shell to retain it, and it failed as it neared completion.
The second (current) dam was completed in 1925 and was built on the remains of the first dam. For the current dam, soil was compacted in the core, primarily by running heavily-loaded wagons over it (pulled by mules). In this photo you can see the mule trains compacting the core.
The second Calaveras Dam, shown in 1926.
However, one problem that wasn't addressed during the construction of the current dam was the fact that alluvial soils (creek sediments including silt, sand, and gravel) were not removed before the first dam was constructed. Such saturated, loose sediments, which are removed during the construction of a modern dam, have the potential to 'liquefy' as they are shaken during an earthquake.
It was for this reason that we at the SFPUC elected to build a completely new dam next to the existing dam. And this time, things were different.
Stay tuned to learn more!