ASDSO Dam Safety Toolbox

Seepage Analysis & Filter/Drain Design

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A diagram illustrating the effects of seepage and erosion on a dam. (Pocket Safety Guide for Dams and Impoundments (FEMA P-911))

Image Source:

Nearly every dam experiences seepage to varying degrees. Depending on the type of dam and its unique site conditions, seepage may go through, underneath, or around the dam. When left unchecked, excessive seepage can lead to problems such as internal erosion and eventual failure of either the dam itself or other vital components of the dam. According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the second most common dam failure incident driver between the years 2010 through 2019 was “internal erosion”.[1] “Erosion and piping can occur when hydraulic gradients at the downstream end of a hydraulic structure are large enough to move soil particles. Analyses to compute hydraulic gradients and procedures to control piping are contained in EM 1110-2-1901”.[2]

The effects of seepage should be evaluated for all dams. "The evaluation must address all potential embankment and foundation seepage related failure modes, including the potential for internal erosion, erosive flow along defects, internal instability, and uplift pressure to damage the embankment, its foundation, and appurtenant structures. The evaluation should be commensurate with the complexity, function, and hazard potential classification of the structure. Seepage control and management must be adequate to accomplish the intended reservoir function, provide a safety operating structure, and prevent damage to downstream property. Design and construct or rehabilitate existing embankment dams with sound defensive measures to reduce, filter, collect, and discharge seepage that are representative of current practice”.[3]

Seepage Mitigation Measures

Cross-section of a seepage filter/drain system. (Montana DNRC)

Image Source: Montana DNRC

“Filters are placed in embankment zones, foundations, or other areas of hydraulic structures for two purposes:

  1. "To intercept water flowing through cracks or openings in a base soil and block the movement of eroding soil particles into the filter. Soil particles are caught at the filter face, reducing the flow of water through the cracks or openings and preventing further erosion and enlargement of the cracks or openings.
  2. "To intercept water flowing through the pores of the base soil, allowing passage of the water while preventing movement of base soil particles.[4]

"Without filters, piping of susceptible base soils can occur when seepage gradients or pressures are high enough to produce erosive discharge velocities in the base soil. The filter zone is generally placed upstream of the discharge point where sufficient confinement prevents uplift or blowout of the filter. Drains consist of sand, gravel, or a sand and gravel mixture placed in embankments, foundations, and backfill of hydraulic structures, or in other locations to reduce seepage pressure. A drain’s most important design feature is its capacity to collect and carry water to a safe outlet at a low gradient or without pressure buildup. Drains are often used downstream of or in addition to a filter to provide outlet capacity. Combined filters and drains are commonly used. The filter is designed to function as a filter and as a drain”.[4]

Installation of seepage barriers such as cut-off walls or injecting grout under pressure at key locations underneath and around the dam can help to reduce the amount of seepage at a dam. The use of these methods increases the seepage path lengths, increasing head loss, and reducing the amount of flow. However, installation of these seepage barriers can sometimes lead to increased hydraulic gradients in key locations underneath or around the dam and lead to the erosion of soil and piping. Careful analysis of the effects of installing a seepage barrier should precede its construction/implementation.

“Design seepage reduction measures to limit seepage and embankment saturation as necessary to address seepage failure modes, provide adequate static and dynamic stability and limit water loss to the extent required by project function”.[3]

Types of Evaluations

The analyses below are common techniques used for the evaluation of earth embankment dams in the context of seepage and filter drains:


Learn more about the need for internal filter and seepage collection systems (

Multiple Factors May Contribute to Internal Erosion Failures

Best Practices Resources

Technical Release 210-60: Earth Dams and Reservoirs, NRCS

Seepage Analysis and Control for Dams (EM 1110-2-1901), USACE

National Engineering Handbook: Chapter 26 - Gradation Design of Sand and Gravel Filters, NRCS

Evaluation and Monitoring of Seepage and Internal Erosion (FEMA P-1032), FEMA

Design Standards No. 13: Embankment Dams (Ch. 8: Seepage), USBR

Filters for Embankment Dams, FEMA

Design Standards No. 13: Embankment Dams (Ch. 5: Protective Filters), USBR

National Engineering Handbook: Chapter 45 - Filter Diaphragms, NRCS

Engineering Guidelines for the Evaluation of Hydropower Projects: Chapter 4- Embankment Dams, FERC


On-Demand Webinar: Filters and Drainage Systems for Embankment Dams

On-Demand Webinar: Internal Erosion – Applying Erosion Mechanics From ICOLD Bulletin 164 In Internal Erosion Failure Mode Analyses

On-Demand Webinar: Evaluation and Maintenance of Piezometers, Relief Wells, and Drains in Dams and Levees

On-Demand Webinar: 3-D Effects on Estimation of Gradients, Seepage Flows and Evaluation of Internal Erosion Potential Failure Modes

On-Demand Webinar: Seepage Rehabilitation for Embankment Dams

On-Demand Webinar: Seepage Monitoring and Analysis of Embankment Dams

On-Demand Webinar: Evaluation of Seepage Related Potential Failure Modes (PFM's) in Embankments with Emphasis on Outlet Penetrations

On-Demand Webinar: Internal Drainage Systems for Embankment Dams

On-Demand Webinar: Filter Design History and a One-Step Design Process

On-Demand Webinar: Empirical Estimates of Permeability for Earth Dam Projects

Technical Seminar: Seepage Through Earth Dams

Other Resources

Seepage_Collection_and_Control_Systems:_The_Devil_is_in_the_Details, ASDSO


Revision ID: 7742
Revision Date: 10/30/2023