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Review of seismic-hazard issues associated with the Auburn Dam project, Sierra Nevada foothills, California

By USGS Auburn Project Review Team 1

U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 96-0011


The U.S. Geological Survey was requested by the U.S. Department of the Interior to review the design values and the issue of reservoir-induced seismicity for a concrete gravity dam near the site of the previously-proposed Auburn Dam in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, central California. The dam is being planned as a flood-control-only dam with the possibility of conversion to a permanent water-storage facility. As a basis for planning studies the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using the same design values approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1979 for the original Auburn Dam. These values were a maximum displacement of 9 inches on a fault intersecting the dam foundation, a maximum earthquake at the site of magnitude 6.5, a peak horizontal acceleration of 0.64 g, and a peak vertical acceleration of 0.39 g. In light of geological and seismological investigations conducted in the western Sierran foothills since 1979 and advances in the understanding of how earthquakes are caused and how faults behave, we have developed the following conclusions and recommendations:

  1. Maximum Displacement. Neither the pre-1979 nor the recent observations of faults in the Sierran foothills precisely define the maximum displacement per event on a fault intersecting the dam foundation. Available field data and our current understanding of surface faulting indicate a range of values for the maximum displacement. This may require the consideration of a design value larger than 9 inches. We recommend reevaluation of the design displacement using current seismic hazard methods that incorporate uncertainty into the estimate of this design value.

  2. Maximum Earthquake Magnitude. There are no data to indicate that a significant change is necessary in the use of an M 6.5 maximum earthquake to estimate design ground motions at the dam site. However, there is a basis for estimating a range of maximum magnitudes using recent field information and new statistical fault relations. We recommend reevaluating the maximum earthquake magnitude using current seismic hazard methodology.

  3. Design Ground Motions. A large number of strong-motion records have been acquired and significant advances in understanding of ground motion have been achieved since the original evaluations. The design value for peak horizontal acceleration (0.64 g) is larger than the median of one recent study and smaller than the median value of another. The value for peak vertical acceleration (0.39 g) is somewhat smaller than median values of two recent studies. We recommend a reevaluation of the design ground motions that takes into account new ground motion data with particular attention to rock sites at small source distances.

  4. Reservoir-Induced Seismicity. The potential for reservoir-induced seismicity must be considered for the Auburn Darn project. A reservoir-induced earthquake is not expected to be larger than the maximum naturally occurring earthquake. However, the probability of an earthquake may be enhanced by reservoir impoundment. A flood-control-only project may involve a lower probability of significant induced seismicity than a multipurpose water-storage dam. There is a need to better understand and quantify the likelihood of this hazard. A methodology should be developed to quantify the potential for reservoir induced seismicity using seismicity data from the Sierran foothills, new worldwide observations of induced and triggered seismicity, and current understanding of the earthquake process.

  5. Reevaluation of Design Parameters. The reevaluation of the maximum displacement, maximum magnitude earthquake, and design ground motions can be made using available field observations from the Sierran foothills, updated statistical relations for faulting and ground motions, and current computational seismic hazard methodologies that incorporate uncertainty into the analysis. The reevaluation does not require significant new geological field studies.



1D.P. Schwartz, W.B. Joyner, R.S. Stein, R.D. Brown, A.F. McGarr, S.H. Hickman, and W.H. Bakun, all at 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025

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