Water School

What is a dam? Are all dams alike?

A dam is a structure designed to hold back water in a lake, river, stream or other waterbody. Large dams typically include gates or other outlet devices that can be raised or lowered, opened or closed to allow variable amounts of water to pass downstream or leave the lake. The path the water takes to leave the reservoir through the gates is called a spillway.

There are several styles of dams used for different purposes to meet specific conditions at the dam site.  The design of the dam is influenced by geologic, topographic, and hydrologic conditions.

  • An arch dam is made of masonry or concrete that is convex (arched) towards the upstream. Its stability depends on the arch, which transfers the water pressure to abutments on each end of the dam.
  • A buttress dam has a watertight face upstream supported by buttresses along its downstream side.
  • A coffer dam is a temporary watertight enclosure that is pumped dry to expose the bottom of a water body so construction can be done.
  • A gravity dam is made of concrete or masonry, or earth fill, and depends on its weight for stability. A variation of this is a crib dam, which has chambers made from wood or other material and those chambers are filled with stone or heavy materials.
  • An embankment dam is built of fill material such as earth or rock. It has sloping sides, with a length greater than its height.
  • A weir is a dam in a river or stream that raises the water level for a water intake structure, creating a fish pond or other smaller-scale uses.




The information provided on this site is intended as background on water within the Brazos River basin. There should be no expectation that this information is all encompassing, complete or in any way examines every aspect of this very complex natural resource.

If you have questions about a post or would like additional information, please contact us or call 888-922-6272.