How Spillways Work

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Human infrastructure like dams have the challenge of standing up to whatever nature can throw at them. It’s expensive, if not outright impossible, to build to every single contingency, so engineers have developed methods of dealing with problems like excess flow caused by a storm. For dams, one of the ways of dealing with this are spillways, which allow a method of controlled release from a reservoir. 

Spillways come in many shapes and sizes, as seen in the video, but there are two general types: those that are actively managed and those that are automatic. An automatic spillway is like the “morning glory” type seen in the middle animation. There’s no on or off for a spillway like this. Instead, once the water level is high enough, water naturally flows out. In that sense, it’s like the overflow holes found in many bathroom sinks.

Controlled spillways are usually managed with gates that can be opened or closed as operators need them. This technique gives more granular control and can even end up being cheaper in some situations because it requires less space to implement. (Video and image credit: Practical Engineering)

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