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Engineering Geology, 24 (1987) 127--141

127

Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., Amsterdam -- Printed in The Netherlands

A DISCUSSION OF THE BALDWIN HILLS R E S E R V O I R F A I L U R E

STANLEY D. WILSON*
Consulting Engineer, 1105 North 38th Street, Seattle, WA 98103 (U.S.A.)

(Accepted for publication December 1986)

INTRODUCTION
The Baldwin Hills Reservoir failure on December 14, 1963 was the climax
o f a series of significant events which were initiated b y the first filling of the
reservoir. The final breach resulted when portions of the reservoir lining
collapsed into large voids formed b y long-term piping along a preexisting
fault. The collapse permitted water under full reservoir pressure to enter the
pea-gravel drain beneath the lining and the large inflow greatly exceeded the
capacity of the drain pipes embedded in the pea gravel. The water then
breached the pervious and erodible abutment of the earth dam which formed
the north enclosure of the reservoir.
There appears to be general agreement that vertical offsetting along a fault
which crossed the floor o f the reservoir was responsible for rupturing the
drainage system and permitting the water to enter the foundation soils.
There is not general agreement, however, on whether or n o t there were fault
movements immediately prior to failure, which in turn ruptured the clay
lining, or whether the clay lining was ruptured first and the resulting introduction o f full reservoir pressure into the fault plane was responsible for
additional offsetting.
The present author published his version o f the causes of the failure in a
paper presented at Purdue University in 1972 (Casagrande et al., 1972),
nearly nine years after the failure. No additional information has been published subsequent to that date which would cause the author to alter his
original opinion as to the causes o f the failure. Therefore, this paper will be
confined to discussing the questions raised in the Prospectus for Invited
Participants, prepared b y G. A. Leonards.
DISCUSSION

Q u e s t i o n 1. Were fault movements initiated as a result of regional subsidence,


tectonic movements, reservoir loading, infiltration, or a combination of
factors? In the latter case, was any one mechanism decisive?

*Stanley D. Wilson died in November, 1985.


0013-7952/87/$03.50

1987 Elsevier Science Publishers B.V.

128

Extensive investigations fonowing the failure revealed that there were


vertical offsets along the two faults which underlie the reservoir, and these
offsets had ruptured the drain pipes which crossed the faults as well as the
thin asphalt membrane which separated the pea-gravel drain from the
pervious and erodible sandy silts which were the foundation of the dam.
These vertical offsets were referred to as "fault movement", and therefore
the failure o f the reservoir is generally attributed to fault movement. The
fault movements, in turn, are generally attributed to land subsidence resulting
from nearby oil production.
A k e y point in analyzing the failure of the Baldwin Hins Reservoir is the
nature of the "fault m o v e m e n t " . The concept of fault movement implies a
rupture that extends from the source at considerable depth to the surface.
The report b y the State of California, Department of Water Resources on the
failure (1964) concluded that:
"Stretching of the ground surface in the vicinity apparently resulted in
opening of the foundations at these faults and dropping of the foundation
blocks simulating a staircase descending to the west. There is little d o u b t
that the subsidence began long before construction of the reservoir and
continued throughout its life."
"Opening o f the foundation faults and the accompanying vertical displacements at these lines of weakness evidently led to rupture of the asphaltic
membrane, the pea gravel drain, and clay tile pipes underlying the reservoir."
During the life o f the reservoir the regional subsidence of the southwest
c o m e r o f the reservoir was about 1.0 ft. and that of the northeast c o m e r
a b o u t 0.5 ft., thus there was about 0.5 ft. of differential regional subsidence
across the reservoir. In addition to the above there were settlements of the
embankments resulting from compression of the e m b a n k m e n t material and
the foundation under the embankments, and settlement of the floor resulting
from compression of the foundation materials under load. The maximum
combined total settlement o f the floor of the reservoir was 1.11 ft.
Fig.1 shows a section through the south circulator line and inlet tunnel on
which are superimposed the total settlement as measured after first filling
(0.7 yrs), after draining the reservoir in 1957 (6.4 yrs) and after failure (13.1
yrs). The difference b e t w e e n the total settlement and the regional subsidence
represents compression of the foundation soils. Note the sharp offset across
each o f the two fault planes. The reason for this is that the foundation strata
on the west, downthrust side of each fault is badly sheared and distressed
(Fig.2) whereas that of the upthrust side is relatively intact. Fig.2 shows a
section through a post-failure trench excavated across Fault V.
In the process of original movement along Faults I and V, the d o w n t h r o w n
block (in this case the west side of each fault) had dropped with respect to
the upthrown (east) side b y an estimated total of 15 ft. During these movements under the influence o f gravity and tectonic forces, the d o w n t h r o w n
block was dragged along the fault plane such that the near-surface soils on
the d o w n t h r o w n side were fractured and loosened, as shown in Fig.2. The
occurrence of such fault-related differential loosening and fracturing at the

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131
Baldwin Hills Reservoir is not an isolated case, but since the soils of the
Inglewood formation are particularly susceptible to loosening, these effects
are unusually severe with respect to other known instances.
At the same time as the reservoir was tilting due to regional subsidence,
and differential compression settlements were developing across Faults I and
V, the reservoir was elongating in the NE--SW direction. The total change in
length from 1950--1964 (13.24 yrs) was 0.86 ft., or 0.065 ft. per year. The
total elongation divided by the total length, assuming the strains were uniform throughout, was 0.071%. In the inspection chamber, based on strain
gauge measurements, it was determined that the inspection chamber elongated approximately 0.6 inches over a total length of about 100 ft., which is
an average o f 0.051% strain. This strain is comparable to average strains of
0.057% in E--W lines across the reservoir and indicates that the strains were
uniform, rather than being concentrated at the faults.
The measured horizontal elongation or stretch is most likely directly
related to the regional subsidence which caused the tilting of the reservoir. It
is equally obvious that the magnitude o f the m a x i m u m average strain (0.071%)
is so small, t h a t if it were distributed uniformly across the reservoir, would in
no way adversely affect a well designed earth structure such as a dam or
reservoir. In fact, the strain measurements along the crest of the south dam
showed elongation strains o f the order of only 0.04% strain, which was comparable to average strains o f 0.036% measured across the reservoir in the
same direction. The m a x i m u m tensile strains in the n o r t h dam were larger as
a result of settlement o f the e m b a n k m e n t itself. Strains in the north embankm e n t itself, however, were not critical because the original failure developed
in the floor o f the reservoir, and the final breach developed in the east abutment adjacent to the main dam but not in the e m b a n k m e n t itself.
It is clear t h a t at the Baldwin Hills Reservoir site there was a combination
o f factors t h a t contributed to the sharp offsets along the faults that ultimately led to failure. There was certainly regional subsidence which led to
tilting of the reservoir. There was regional elongation which, although of
small magnitude, may have decreased the lateral earth pressure even if it did
n o t result in tension cracking. There was reservoir loading which resulted in
settlement of the floor of the reservoir. There was infiltration into the underlying softs which increased the compressibility o f the foundation softs and in
particular increased the differential compression across the faults.
One question t h a t remains unanswered even today, however, is whether or
not there were tectonic movements (fault slippage) which activated the actual
failure. It is possible t h a t re-pressurization of the producing oil field to the
west contributed to the lateral spreading and to gradual opening o f the
surface fault north and south of the reservoir. It is also certain that water
from the reservoir, once it infiltrated the fault under full reservoir pressure,
opened up the fault to a width o f perhaps several inches. When this happened,
the vertical shear stresses across the fault surface were reduced to zero and
the block on the east side of the fault rebounded about 0.16 ft. as shown in
Fig.3. The theoretical rebound, as computed by Dr. R.F. Scott, was based

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133
u p o n assumed values of moduli and existing shear stresses, which were
reduced from a maximum o f 5000 psf at d e p t h 200 to 400 ft. to zero following failure. The excellent agreement between the theoretical and measured
rebounds indicates that the rebound was the result of relief of shear stresses
and n o t a true fault movement.
There is no question b u t that there was regional subsidence, regional tilting, lateral stretching of the ground surface, and actual cracking of the ground
surface north and south of the reservoir along Fault I. These activities
u n d o u b t e d l y contributed to the state of stress in the foundation of the
reservoir that ultimately resulted in vertical offsets across the faults. This offsetting cracked the asphalt membrane and ruptured the drain pipes and thus
permitted water from the reservoir to saturate the foundation soils adjacent
to the faults, which in turn increased the differential compression. In the
final analysis, the collapse of the lining into openings created b y internal
erosion was the immediate cause of the failure. However, the internal erosion
had u n d o u b t e d l y been developing over the life of the reservoir.

Question 2. Should the fault movements have been anticipated in the design
stage? Would t h e y n o w be anticipated if a similar case arose?
This question assumes that there were "fault movements". The Letter
Report from the State Consulting Board (1964) states that:
"Movement occurred at the fault on December 14, rupturing the impervious
blanket and admitting full reservoir pressure to the fault and to the drainage
system for the first time."
The author, on the basis of the investigations reported b y Shannon and
Wilson (1970) would have worded this statement somewhat differently,
perhaps as follows:
"Differential settlement of the foundation soils on the downthrust side of
the faults under reservoir loading ruptured the drain pipes at an early stage
o f the reservoir life, permitting water to infiltrate the foundation soils and to
flow along paths adjacent to the faults. This seepage led to internal erosion
and the development o f caverns and pipes. The collapse of the lining into
these openings on December 14, 1963, admitted full reservoir pressure to the
fault which in turn relieved the existing vertical shear stresses and resulted in
upward rebound of the east side of the fault."
It is not reasonable to conclude that fault movements should have been
anticipated in the design stage when there is not unanimity of opinion, after
the failure, as to whether or n o t there were fault movements prior to the
failure. The existence of faults in the foundation area was k n o w n at the time
o f design b u t the amount of future activity was anticipated to be minor.
Even after failure the total vertical offset across Fault I was less than 0.5 ft.,
and about 0.25 ft. across Fault V. In any event it is the author's opinion that
internal erosion along the fault which resulted from infiltration of water was
the cause of failure, and not "fault movement". Probably failure would have
occurred without any fault displacement had the same amount of water been
permitted to infiltrate the foundation soils at the location of the existing faults.

134
Differential settlement of the downthrust block along existing faults has
u n d o u b t e d l y occurred on other projects, although the author is unaware of
any reported in the literature. This is a matter of interest to dam engineers,
however, and certainly the possibility o f differential settlement should be
investigated if existing faults are located beneath loaded structures. At the
Baldwin Hills Reservoir it was particularly critical because of the highly
erodible nature of the foundation soils.

Question 3. Would more careful study and interpretation of crest settlements,


seepage flow rates, etc., have alerted the designers to impending failure before
it was t o o late? Would modern methods of interpreting the data do a better
j o b than was possible in 1963? If so, how?
There were three bits o f information developed b y the monitoring program
that, in hindsight, appear to give an indication of a worsening condition
although n o t necessarily of impending failure.
Horizontal and vertical movements were measured b y the DWP in the
drainage inspection chamber, which is a relatively rigid, reinforced, concrete
b o x under the reservoir floor and which crossed Fault I. The first crack in
the inspection chamber was observed on May 4, 1951, during the first partial
filling, at Station 0+709 just east of Fault I. On October 29, 1951, strain
gage points were established across this crack.
The differential settlement across Fault I imposed bending stresses in the
relatively rigid concrete inspection chamber which developed a tension crack
in the r o o f about 10 ft. east of the fault (Station 0+70). As settlements
increased this crack gradually widened until in late 1957 a new tension crack
developed suddenly in the floor at Station 0+89, a b o u t 9 ft. west of Fault I.
The resulting tilting of the rigid chamber across the fault resulted in a sudden
increase in opening o f the r o o f crack 19 ft. to the east.
The overall trend of increasing rate of crack opening was somewhat
obscured b y the erratic changes resulting from seasonal temperature changes.
A comparison of readings on a particular date with those of the 2 or 3
previous readings would s h o w o n l y erratic readings of no significance. However, a long-term plot, such as Fig.4, reveals quite clearly a rapid increase in
rate of crack opening starting in a b o u t 1959. One standard criterion for
evaluation of movement data is to be alert to any increase in the rate of
movement with time, irrespective o f the actual rate. Curves A, B, and C
(Fig.4) are typical laboratory unconfined compression tests on a clay-shale
from Panama which showed such an increase in rate of deformation well in
advance o f actual failure. This particular set of data b y itself is not necessarily
related to the ultimate failure b u t it might have served as a red flag had it
been plotted and reviewed.
In April and May, 1951, while the reservoir was being filled for the first
time, excessive leakage of up to 75 gpm developed through the lining adjacent
to the intake tower. The reservoir was drained and after extensive repairs was
again filled.

135
TIME

t3 YEARS

Fig.4. Crack opening in Baldwin Hills inspection chamber.

Fig.5 is a summary plot of the total measured leakage over the operational
life o f the reservoir. In July 1951 shortly after the reservoir was placed into
regular service, the total measured leakage peaked at almost 24 gallons per
minute, with the pool raised to within 6 ft. of the spillway lip. Since this
peak flow was only 1/3 of that measured during the first filling, the repair
work was judged to have been satisfactory. However, during the life of the
reservoir there were large variations in the rate of flow from certain drains
which apparently became plugged and this caused increased flow in adjacent
drains.
During the first 2.5 years of reservoir operation, the total measured leakage
steadily dropped from the maximum rate of 24 gpm to about 10 gpm. However, it wasduring this period, on Oct. 30, 1951, that the D.W.P. first proved,
b y means of a d y e test, that water freely flowed through the asphalt "membrane" from the southeast toe drain to the t o w e r base drain. Thus water was
able to flow into the foundation and faults early in the life of the reservoir.
Then, for the next nine years, from early 1954 through early 1963, the leakage rate fluctuated between 7 and 10 gpm, except in early 1957 when the
reservoir was drained for cleaning, inspection, and repair. While empty, the
total measured flow dropped to a b o u t 2 gpm, b u t returned to an average rate
o f a b o u t 8 gpm after refilling. During the last six months of the reservoir's
life, the total measured seepage increased sharply from an average rate of
a b o u t 9 gpm to over 13 gpm just prior to failure; however, the measured rate
o f leakage was still well below that measured in 1951 and 1952.
The significant decrease in rate of leakage measured in the early years of
reservoir operation was believed b y D.W.P. to be the result of the self-sealing

195i

1952

1953

1954

I
1955

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1956

TOTAL LEAKAGEMEASURED

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137

nature o f the compacted earth lining. In the author's judgment the total
leakage through the earth lining may actually have increased with time, and
the decrease o f rate measured in the inspection chamber may have been
caused b y gradually increasing seepage into the foundation, particularly into
faults. The pre-existing system of faults and joints provided a relatively easy
path for water to flow downward into more permeable strata at depth. Oil
c o m p a n y records show that development wells drilled after 1924 immediately
south of the reservoir encountered lost circulation of the drilling fluids within
the upper several hundred feet. These same conditions must have existed
under the reservoir, explaining how large quantities o f seepage water and fine
soil particles could easily have been carried to depth and would not have
appeared as seepage at the toe of the dam or elsewhere around the reservoir.
The fact that large erosional cavities and pipes were found in the foundation
following failure substantiates the author's opinion that foundation deterioration had been developing since first filling. Such erosion pipes take years to
develop and greatly increase the capacity of the foundation to accept leakage
from the reservoir. Thus, the significance of the observed decrease in leakage
can be easily misinterpreted and lead to grossly misleading conclusions. It is
probable that the sharp increase in the flow measured in the inspection
chamber during the second half of 1963 (Fig.5) reflected a substantial
increase in the rate o f flow penetrating the earth lining, which exceeded the
capacity o f the various ruptures in the asphalt " m e m b r a n e " to accommodate
the additional seepage.
Settlement measurements were made around the crest of the dam periodicaUy throughout its life. The interpretation of the settlement data was complicated b y the fact that there was regional subsidence, variable compression
o f the embankments, variable compression of the foundation soils, and errors
due to benchmark subsidence. Careful post-failure analysis of the data, however, permits one to conclude that sharp differential settlements of 0.2 to
0.3 ft. developed across Fault I underlying the main dam during the life of
the reservoir, as shown in Fig.6.
The author does n o t consider any of the above data to be so obvious that
it should have alerted the designer to an impending failure. Nor does he
believe that m o d e m methods of interpreting the data would have led to
different conclusions.

Question 4. Could a better defense against seepage erosion have been


designed? If so, how?
The answer to this question is obviously yes! But to actually design a
better defense is n o t so easily accomplished. Leonards (1984) proposes to
move the drainage system from below the clay lining to the surface, and to
add a 3-inch protective asphalt lining on top. This is perhaps an improvement
b u t in the author's opinion n o t a complete solution. Making a watertight seal
where the lining joins the intake t o w e r would have been very difficult. Differential settlement across the faults, combined with horizontal elongation, quite

138
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probably would have ruptured the asphaltic membranes as well as the asphalt
paving and thus still led to concentrated inflows to the foundation faults.
Also the 4-inch clay tile drains would have had insufficient capacity to handle
the large inflows from cracks in the asphalt lining.
At the Ludington Pumped Storage Reservoir in Michigan (Whitehead and
Ruotolo, 1973), where the embankments were also of highly erodible
materials, the scheme adopted consisted of the following:
Hydraulic asphalt concrete lining was selected for technical economic
advantages. From bottom to top, the asphalt pavement consists of a 3-inch
(76 mm) layer of hydraulic asphalt concrete; 18 inch (460 mm) of wellgraded ll/~-inch (38 mm)-(max) aggregate, which serves as drain; a 21/~-inch
(64 mm) layer of binder course, serving as binder between overlying impervious
asphalt and drain material; and two 21/~-inch (64 mm) layers of impervious
hydraulic asphalt concrete.
At the toe of the asphalt face and inside the 18-inch (460 mm) drain layer
is a 10-inch (254 mm) slotted fiberglass pipe running around the entire inner
perimeter of the embankment. To this pipe are connected 8-inch (203 mm)
diam. fiberglass casing (no slots) at 150 ft. (45.7 m) intervals; these run up
the slope and terminate in a manhole at the top of the embankment. Any
water finding its way into the drainage zone between asphalt layers is
collected in the toe drain and pumped to the surface by submersible pumps
inside the 8-inch casings.

139

The safety o f the Baldwin Hills Reservoir depended on preventing water


from the reservoir entering the underlying strata and faults; but ironically,
certain features of the design which were intended to accomplish this may
have substantially contributed to the processes which culminated in failure.
If the brittle drainage system beneath the clay lining had not been used, the
seepage would have been more dispersed and it may have taken years longer
to produce the degree of underground erosion which led to failure; although
eventually the reservoir might still have failed essentially in the same manner.
It is debatable whether a safe reservoir could have been designed for these
foundation conditions. Probably only a steel lining could have given reasonable assurance of safety. Other measures, such as overexcavation and backfilling o f the faults with clay, use of a more plastic clay for the lining, and
particularly elimination of any subdrainage system, would have extended the
life of the reservoir, but without ensuring the degree of safety that must be
demanded of such a reservoir. Among the many different types of engineering problems which the designers of such facilities may encounter, the most
feared conditions are those that could lead to underground erosion and
piping failure. Most other risks can be effectively monitored by appropriate
observations, but piping is an insidious p h e n o m e n o n which usually escapes
our attention until it is too late.
Question 5. Could a better monitoring system have been designed? If so,
how?
The monitoring system installed at Baldwin Hills Reservoir was well
designed, carefully installed, monitored at frequent intervals, and the data
were promptly reviewed and analyzed. Because the designers considered
control o f leakage to be of prime importance, t h e y t o o k elaborate steps to
record all measurable flows at frequent intervals. However, the effectiveness
o f the drainage system and the reliability o f the seepage measurements
depended entirely on the watertightness of the 1A-inch-thick asphalt membrane which separated the pea gravel-drainage system from the foundation
soils. Any rupturing o f this membrane, or imperfection in the membrane
itself, would obviously permit water to infiltrate the foundation soils, a
condition the designers knew would not be acceptable.
It is difficult to conceive of a monitoring system that would detect seepage
at concentrated points o f the asphalt lining, considering the area of the
membrane involved.
Considering the thinness of the asphalt lining and the possibility of fault
movement (or differential settlement across the faults) it would have been
desirable to have installed remote sensing differential settlement gages across
the faults. Such gages were not readily available at the time of construction
and probably a custom designed instrument would have been required. The
inspection chamber itself crossed the fault but it was so rigid the settlements
were more or less uniformly distributed over about 50 ft. and could have
been interpreted as being a general pattern of settlement.

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Question 6. Should a dam have been built at this site in 19517 Today?
It must be emphasized that the dam itself performed satisfactorily during
the entire life o f the reservoir and in no w a y contributed to the failure of the
reservoir.
It was known before completion o f the reservoir that the Baldwin Hills
were experiencing subsidence, accompanied b y tensile strains at the reservoir
site. These movements persisted at a steady rate throughout the life of the
reservoir and still continue. Even so, the magnitude o f these movements is so
small, including the differential settlement across Fauls I and V, that it
would not harm most of the earth dams and reservoirs with which the author
is familiar, excepting the Baldwin Hills Reservoir. One may question whether
any important dam and reservoir should be permitted to be constructed if it
cannot withstand with perfect safety movements of such magnitude.
There are at least several existing dams that are built across faults which
are either known or suspected of being active. Cedar Springs Dam in southern
California, constructed in 1971, was designed to withstand sudden fault
movements o f 3 to 5 ft. either vertically or transverse to the core. The design
o f the safety features incorporated in this 76 m high dam was reviewed in
the early 1980's and this review verified the original design assumptions with
regard to the seismic effects on the dam.
The Los Angeles Dam, which was built to replace the Lower San Fernando
Dam which was severely damaged b y the San Fernando Earthquake, was
designed to withstand fault movements of up to 15 ft. in any direction and
at unspecified locations.
Although the validity of the design has not been verified b y actual fault
movements at either of the above sites, it is clear that designers t o d a y consider it feasible to design embankment dams to resist fault movements of
much larger magnitude than developed at Baldwin Hills. However, here the
problem was to prevent seepage through the blanket from infiltrating the
foundation soils. With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to outline, in principle, a few basic steps that might have made the lining safe.
(1) Excavate the fault traces to a depth of at least 5 ft and replace with a
plastic material.
(2) Do not carry the pea-gravel drain across the faults, but stop it at least
5 ft. away from the faults.
(3) Place the drain pipes only in N--S directions so as to avoid rupture due
to offsetting settlement along the fault, and also to avoid elongation.
(4) Replace the 1A-inch asphalt membrane with a thicker layer of a more
plastic material, possibly even a plastic or rubber membrane.
(5) Place an impervious plastic material several feet in thickness between
the membrane and the foundation soils.
CONCLUDING REMARKS
The Baldwin Hills Reservoir during its service life of 13 years was subjected
to tilting, subsidence, elongation, and vertical offsetting across two pre-existing

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foundation faults. Regardless of the cause of these phenomena, the magnitude of the strains and displacement was relatively small, they developed
slowly, and it would appear that any modern dam should be capable of withstanding them without failure. As a matter of fact the north embankment
dam, which crossed the fault, did withstand them.
It seems probable, however, that small vertical offsets across the faults
ruptured not only the drain pipes crossing the faults but also the pea-gravel
drainage blanket and the asphalt membrane, permitting seepage water to
infiltrate the foundation soils and to initiate internal erosion. Over the life of
the project this internal erosion developed pipes and caverns along the faults
just below the lining. The collapse of the lining into these pipes and caverns
led to the ultimate failure and thus the author considers this to be an example
of a failure caused by internal erosion, and not by "fault movement".
In order for the reservoir water to enter the drains with full reservoir
pressure, the clay lining had to rupture. There is disagreement as to whether
fault movement ruptured the lining, permitting water to enter the faults, or
whether the lining collapsed into a cavern along the fault, following which
there was fault movement which further ruptured the lining.
REFERENCES
Casagrande, A., Wilson, S.D. and Schwantes, E.D., 1972. The Baldwin HillsReservoir
failure in retrospect. Proceedings of the Specialty Conference on the Performance of
Earth and Earth-Supported Structures, Purdue University, June 1972, ASCE.
State of California, 1964. Investigationof Failure, Baldwin Hills Reservoir. Department
of Water Resources, April 1964.
Leonards, G.A., 1984. Baldwin Hills Reservoir failure. Int. Conf. Case Histories Geotech.
Eng., Vol. IV.
Shannon and Wilson, Inc., 1970. Post Failure Studies of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir.
Report prepared for Standard Oil Company of California, December 1970.
Whitehead, Carl F. and Ruotolo, Donn, 1973. Ludington Pumped Storage Project Wins
1973 Outstanding CE Achievement Award. Civil Engineering- ASCE, June 1973.