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Mizzou taking measures for dam safety

MU's Vellore Gopalaratnam, at left, with Thomas Ruf, center, and Guillermo Riveros of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during an inspection of the Tainter gates at Carlyle Lake Dam.

As engineers all across America struggle to maintain the nation’s aging infrastructure, a University of Missouri researcher is developing a way to prevent one type of disastrous dam failure.

Vellore Gopalaratnam, an MU civil and environmental engineering professor, is developing a sensor system that will remotely measure how much strain is being placed on a type of spillway gate called a Tainter gate. Indirectly, the sensors will measure the condition of the gate’s hinge—a known problem area that is not only difficult to reach but hidden within the gate’s construction, Gopalaratnam said.

“Some of these gate systems are now 40 or 50 years old,” Gopalaratnam said. “We need to investigate whether these gates and gate hinges are operating properly or are a cause for concern before they create problems.”

Gopalaratnam has received $48,108 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop and test the Tainter gate monitoring system. The monitoring project particularly targets the curved metal gate’s hinges—its trunnion bearings, specifically—which are susceptible to corrosion but cannot be easily removed for inspection, he said.

Gopalaratnam plans to test the monitoring system next spring at the Carlyle Lake Dam in Illinois.

Once proven, the Army Corps plans to use the Tainter gate monitoring system as a portable measurement system at similar dams throughout the country, said Guillermo Riveros, a civil engineer heading up the project for the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center based in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Army Corps officials commissioned the project in response to the “infrastructure dilemma” the nation currently is facing, said Alan Dooley, a public affairs officer for the Corps’ St. Louis district. As is true for much of America’s infrastructure, many of the nation’s Tainter gates were built several decades ago and require prudent monitoring, he said.

“We’ve got an aging infrastructure and it’s not just acts of God that make it fail,” Dooley said. “Sometimes it’s acts of omission, by man.”

Indeed, a Tainter gate on Folsom Dam in California broke suddenly in 1995, releasing a torrent of water into the Lower American River. While no one was injured by the flood, the accident prompted federal engineers to review Tainter gate design, Riveros said.

Riveros said Tainter gates typically are included in navigational and flood control dams, which by their nature must withstand sudden, heavy stress. Ten Missouri dams maintained by the Army Corps have Tainter gates, officials said.

“We are trying to understand well the state of stress induced by the trunnion friction when the gate is operating,” Riveros said. “We need to understand it well to prevent any other catastrophic failures and help us maintain our infrastructure.”