U.S. Department of Defense


Date of this Version



Journal of Applied Geophysics 77 (2012) 7–20; doi:10.1016/j.jappgeo.2011.11.002


A recent evaluation of Martis Creek Dam highlighted the potential for dam failure due to either seepage or an earthquake on nearby faults. In 1972, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed this earthen dam, located within the Truckee Basin to the north of Lake Tahoe, CA for water storage and flood control. Past attempts to raise the level of the Martis Creek Reservoir to its design level have been aborted due to seepage at locations downstream, along the west dam abutment, and at the base of the spillway. In response to these concerns, the U.S. Geological Survey has undertaken a comprehensive suite of geophysical investigations aimed at understanding the interplay between geologic structure, seepage patterns, and reservoir and groundwater levels. This paper concerns the geologic structure surrounding Martis Creek Dam and emphasizes the importance of a regional-scale understanding to the interpretation of engineering-scale geophysical data. Our studies reveal a thick package of sedimentary deposits interbedded with Plio-Pleistocene volcanic flows; both the deposits and the flows are covered by glacial outwash. Magnetic field data, seismic tomography models, and seismic reflections are used to determine the distribution and chronology of the volcanic flows. Previous estimates of depth to basement (or the thickness of the interbedded deposits) was 100 m. Magnetotelluric soundings suggest that electrically resistive bedrock may be up to 2500 m deep. Both the Polaris Fault, identified outside of the study area using airborne LiDAR, and the previously unnamed Martis Creek Fault, have been mapped through the dam area using ground and airborne geophysics. Finally, as determined by direct-current resistivity imaging, time-domain electromagnetic sounding, and seismic refraction, the paleotopography of the interface between the sedimentary deposits and the overlying glacial outwash plays a principal role both in controlling groundwater flow and in the distribution of the observed seepage.