Impact of Reclamation's Hydraulic Laboratory on Water Development
Philip H. Burgi 1
The paper covers the history of Reclamation's hydraulic laboratory from its
inception in 1930 at Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station, Fort Collins,
Colorado to the present. Emphasis is placed on the laboratory's historical role in
developing new design concepts for hydraulic structures to meet Reclamation's ever-
increasing challenges over the past seventy years.
The paper presents the design challenges associated with specific structures
such as: Hoover Dam side channel spillway, Grand Coulee Dam spillway bucket,
Hungry Horse Dam tunnel spillway, and more recently the aeration slot design
developed for Reclamation's tunnel spillways to prevent cavitation damage.
During the 1950's and 1960's Reclamation's hydraulic laboratory initiated an
extensive research program to develop standard designs that eventually led to
engineering monographs and manuals coauthored by hydraulic laboratory staff. The
paper concludes with the hydraulic design challenges facing Reclamation in the next
century. The water management issues associated with fish passage and water
conservation as well as infrastructure security at numerous dams in the western U.S.
are some of the hydraulic challenges in Reclamation's future.
The Bureau of Reclamation was established in 1902. In its first ten years
eighteen dams were built. By 1930 fifty dams had been constructed. The first
irrigation projects were fairly simple, consisting of a diversion dam, headworks,
canals, and turnouts. These early projects involved no special challenges other than
those peculiar to each site. To optimize water basin development, dams of increasing
height were required and their design and construction created new problems and
provided serious challenges for Reclamation's engineers.
The 1906 Congress introduced the function of hydropower when it authorized
the sale of excess power generated at Reclamation projects. In 1928 Congress passed
the Boulder Canyon Project Act (The name Boulder Dam was changed to Hoover
Dam April 3, 1947 by joint congressional resolution). This act inaugurated a new era
in the conservation and utilization of western water. Hoover Dam would be the
principal structure of the Boulder Canyon Project and would introduce a new concept
in western water development referred to as multi-purpose development. Other
projects soon followed: the Central Valley Project, Columbia Basin Project,
Colorado-Big Thompson Project, and the Missouri River Project. These multi-
purpose projects optimized utilization of water and land resources in large areas of
entire river basins. Rhone1 states the quarter century between 1948 and 1973 was
especially productive when more than half of Reclamation's dams were constructed.
THE EARLY YEARS
In the early years before 1930, many of Reclamation's design engineers were
recruited from Reclamation's parent organization, the U.S. Geological Survey. The
Founding Member EWRI of ASCE, Water Resources Consultant, Wheat Ridge, Colorado,
supervisory staff of the design units maintained extremely high engineering standards
for their personnel. Typically, each design leader assembled and maintained a design
manual based on their training and experience; these informal manuals were passed
on to subordinates who, in turn, added to the standards and through their new
knowledge and experience became even better qualified designers.
When Reclamation completed the construction of Shoshone Dam (100 m) in
Wyoming in 1910, it was the highest dam in the world. In the next 25 years
Reclamation held this record three more times with the construction of Arrowrock
Dam (106 m) in Idaho in 1915, Owyhee Dam (127 m) built in eastern Oregon in
1933, and finally Hoover Dam (221 m) on the Colorado River in 1936.
RECLAMATION'S HYDRAULIC LABORATORY
Reclamation's hydraulic laboratory was established in the early 1930s
expressly to solve the technical challenges presented in the design of these large
structures. With the anticipation of designing Hoover Dam there came the
recognition that this structure would impose design and construction challenges well
beyond the textbooks and experience of the day. The tremendous construction costs
associated with these large structures required careful attention to the preliminary
design and required hydraulic model testing before one could finalize design and start
Although the name "hydraulic laboratory" is relatively modern, the concept
has been around for a long time. Scholars as early as Leonardo da Vinci recognized
the importance of experimentation when dealing with the flow of water. He is quoted
as saying, "Remember when discoursing on the flow of water to adduce first
experience and then reason". 2 The purpose of the hydraulic model is to use the tool
of similitude to demonstrate the behavior of flowing water at reduced scale.
Typically, models are used to study rivers and waterways of hydraulic structures and
equipment such as: spillways, outlet works, stilling basins, gates, valves, and pipes
associated with large dams. Agreement between model and prototype has proven
very satisfactory. 3, 4
At the turn of the 20th century, some European universities and especially
universities in Germany recognized the value of experimental model studies to solve
hydraulic challenges such as those posed by dam spillways and outlet works, siphons,
tunnel inlets, and bridge constrictions on rivers. John R. Freeman (1855-1932), a
hydraulic engineer from the United States, felt very strongly that we should develop
similar hydraulic laboratories to those being utilized in Europe. In 1924 he visited
laboratories in Berlin, Dresden, Brunn and Karlsruhe. He had a significant influence
on the development of hydraulic laboratories in the United States. Freeman writes in
1929, "Nowhere, yet, in America has the writer found the acceptance and reliance
upon the doctrines of similitude which he has found at substantially all of the great
European engineering universities, and which have been developed there wholly
during the past 30 years, and mainly during the past 10 years." 5
Beginning in the early thirties, laboratory activity in engineering schools in
the United States greatly increased. Freeman describes some of the early work
conducted in laboratories in the United States: Cornell University (1899), State
University of Iowa (1919), Alden hydraulic laboratory of the Worcester Polytechnic
Institute (1910), and several commercial laboratories conducting experimentation
with hydraulic turbines. Eventually, hydraulic laboratories were established in
government facilities such as the Miami Conservancy District in Ohio, the U.S.
Bureau of Standards, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Soil Conservation Service, and
the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Figure 1. 1931 Photo of Reclamation Hydraulic Laboratory staff at Fort Collins
Investigations with hydraulic models had their start in the Bureau of
Reclamation in August 1930 when thirteen engineers, technicians, and craftsmen
from the Denver Reclamation Office began working in the hydraulic laboratory of the
Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station in Fort Collins, Colorado. The 242 m2
laboratory was built in 1912 under the direction of Ralph Parshall.
By 1935, the laboratory in Fort Collins had expanded to four times its original
size to handle the ever-increasing Reclamation work load. One of the early studies
was for the proposed shaft spillways for Hoover Dam. As a result of these studies a
change was made from the original shaft spillway concept to two side-channel
spillways to accommodate the design flow that had increased from 5,670 to 11,340
In the summer of 1929, Emory Lane was appointed as engineer in charge of
the Bureau of Reclamation's of hydraulic, sediment, and earth materials research
studies. A graduate of Purdue and Cornell Universities, he worked for the Miami
Conservancy District, Ohio before coming to Reclamation. During his 6-year period
as administrator of the hydraulic laboratory, Lane initiated the comprehensive
laboratory investigations undertaken for Hoover Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Imperial
Dam and de-silting works and the model studies of the All American Canal
Jacob Warnock, another graduate of Purdue, came to Reclamation as an
associate hydraulic engineer after working with the Corps of Engineers in their
Chattanooga, Nashville, and Huntington offices. By 1934 Warnock, became head of
the hydraulic laboratory in Fort Collins when Emory Lane moved to Denver to direct
a small hydraulic laboratory that had been set up in the basement of the Old Custom
House in Denver. Victor Streeter, who later became a renowned Professor of
Hydraulics at the University of Michigan, was one of the staff members in Denver
during this period.
Figure 2: Jacob Warnock (front right) with visiting engineers in the
Custom House Laboratory
In a summary article written in 1936, Warnock stated, "Models were first used
extensively by the Bureau in 1930 in the design of the spillway for the Cle Elum Dam
of the Yakima project in Washington. The design of the spillways for Boulder Dam,
Madden Dam in the Panama Canal Zone, and Norris and Wheeler dams for the
Tennessee Valley Authority, served as stepping stones in further developing the
technique and improving the methods."6
Warnock was a strong believer in the value of hydraulic model investigations.
"The procedure by which models of hydraulic structures are built and tested in the
laboratory before the design is finally adopted and committed to construction is
analogous to the manner in which a newly designed machine is thoroughly inspected
for defects and imperfections at the factory. The models reveal undesirable features
of the design and indicate the proper means for the correction." 7
By 1935 Jacob Warnock became head of the laboratory in Denver and was
instrumental in its move to the New Custom House in 1937 where there was
approximately 475 m2 available for studies.
The work of the laboratory became so prolific that Reclamation tested 80
models in the period from 1930-38 and had 50 engineers, technicians, and craftsmen
working in three laboratories. "The use of models has proved so advantageous in
indicating opportunities for reducing costs and improving hydraulic properties that
the work of the laboratories is now recognized as a regular part of hydraulic design.
At the present time, the three laboratories are engaged in testing or constructing
models of twenty different features relating to ten major projects." 7
In the fall of 1938, Reclamation discontinued its work in the Fort Collins
laboratory. Warnock figured prominently in the design of the hydraulic features of
Hoover, Grand Coulee, Shasta, Friant, and many other large dams and irrigation
projects in the west. His untimely death in December 1949 at the age of 46 was a
great shock to Reclamation's Denver Center.
The wartime westward shifting of population and industry created an impetus
and need for a Reclamation construction program much larger after the war than it
had been before. By 1943 Reclamation organized into seven regional areas based on
large watersheds in the West and established a Chief Engineer's Office in Denver
responsible for all design and construction. The small laboratory space in the New
Custom House was inadequate for the enlarged program. Sufficient space was
available at the former Denver Ordnance Plant (Remington Small Arms Plant)
located on the west side of Denver and now referred to as the Denver Federal Center
In the later part of 1946, the hydraulic laboratory was moved to its present
home in the Denver Federal Center where it occupied some 4925 m2 of laboratory
space. At the time, Reclamation's staff at the Denver Federal Center totaled over
2240 employees. These facilities were unequaled in their specialized qualifications
anywhere in the world. Design and construction engineers worked in tandem with
experts in hydraulics, concrete, soils, chemical, and other laboratories to meet the
new challenges of water development in the arid west.
A quote from the July 1950 edition of The Reclamation Era states, "The
combination of men and laboratory equipment is paying huge dividends to the public.
Water and power users, who ultimately pay for Reclamation projects, pay for the
work of the Branch of Design and Construction. They should be reassured to know
that economies in construction discovered at the Center have more than paid for its
total operating costs, as well as the entire cost of establishing and equipping it.
Many of the money-saving techniques and materials conceived in connection with
specific construction works will apply as well to later works, thus compounding the
monetary economies." 8
There were other hydraulic laboratories developed and used by Reclamation.
They were primarily field laboratories located at: Montrose, CO (1931-1936), Grand
Coulee Dam (early 1940s), Hoover Dam (1939-1945), Estes Park Colorado
Powerplant (late 60s and early 70s).
Spillways at dams are used to pass the design flood and thus protect the dam
from overtopping. Early in Reclamation history there were five general categories of
spillways in use: "glory hole" or shaft-type (Gibson Dam), side-channel (Hoover
Dam), overflow type (Grand Coulee), open chute type (Bartlett Dam), and enclosed
tunnel chute (Seminole Dam).
The importance of adequate spillway design cannot be overemphasized.
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