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Utah's Miniature Dams Model the World's Water Future

Donna Barry, Utah State University

The United States had it’s heyday building dams in the 1930s and 40s, but there are still engineers designing dams right here in Utah. Jennifer Pemberton visited the Utah Water Research Lab in Logan to see models of cutting-edge dams designed to be built all over the world.

I’m watching videos of dam tests with Blake Tullis, an engineering professor and researcher at the Utah Water Research Lab in Logan. He recently returned from France, where he saw what happens when a dam opens its floodgates all the way, creating essentially a catastrophic flood. This flood was intentional, part of a two-day long test that cost 55,000 euro in lost electricity production revenue.

Tullis is stoked about big dam releases because he’s used to working with tiny scale models of dams. The hydraulics modeling lab looks like a cross between a skate park and a water park with lots of shaped concrete and tubes and pipes. The Logan River actually runs through the building and the lab can divert the water into its models where it can be a stand-in for the Kern River in California or the Susu River in Malaysia.

We easily walk to the top of the model of the Isabella Dam near Bakersfield, California. It’s like a really lumpy empty swimming pool. The reservoir is essentially the deep end of the pool and we’re standing at the top of the water slide that will be a new spillway for the dam.

“This spillway was designed to carry 50,000 cubic feet per second at maximum flood design,” Blake tells me. “Even though there’s no water in California now, the problem maximum flood is now half a million cubic feet per second, so an order of magnitude  higher, or ten times higher. They came to us for help.”

This spillway is a new design from Tullis and his students, and once it’s built Isabella Dam will be able to hold and spill more water, giving the dam managers more control over increasingly unpredictable water levels.

We take a golf cart to another building with one of the international dam models. This one is like a crystal pyramid. It has a clear plexiglass stair case coming out of some wooden scaffolding. It’s a design for a spillway for a hydropower dam in Malaysia. When there are flood flows, there’s too much water to make electricity with. The water comes out with so much force that it can destroy anything below.

“These steps break up some of the kinetic energy so it’s not so problematic down here,” says Tullis.

There aren’t many dams being built in the U.S. these days. Tullis says engineers have shifted their design work away from huge new dam construction to making dams more efficient and rehabilitating old dams with improvements like these new spillways and adding in tubes for fish passage.

But in other countries, dam building is big right now. Big like the 1930s and 40s in this country.

“In Switzerland, for example, 40 - 45% of their energy comes from nuclear power,” says Tullis. “After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, they’re planning on mothballing all of of their nuclear and compensating with hydropower.”

There are dozens of examples of models and projects at the Utah Water Research Lab that are intended for other places. And not just for hydropower, but also for irrigation solutions and flood control in developing countries that don’t have sophisticated water delivery systems and still have serious water quality problems.

Blake Tullis has project money set aside to go visit the dam in Malaysia after it’s completed. It’s pretty fun to open the valve and watch the Logan River flow through a 1:35 scale model of a dam, but based on the photos and videos he keeps on his computer, it’s clear that he enjoys seeing the real thing about 35 times more. I tease him about the dam selfies I see as he scrolls through his photos.

“It’s pretty rewarding to do applied research that ends up helping people all over the world solving common problems,” he says. “It’s a good feeling to be producing something not just journal worthy but useful as well.”

WATCH: The Army Corp of Engineers testing Blake Tullis' design model for the Isabella Dam in California.