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Check Dams & Gully Plugs

Check Dams & Gully Plugs

Published on SSWM (


Check Dams & Gully Plugs



Gully plugs, also called check dams, are mainly built to prevent
erosion and to settle sediments and pollutants. Furthermore, it is
possible to keep soil moisture due to infiltration. Depending on the
topography, amount of precipitation, material and financial resources
available, there are several methods to construct a gully plug. They
have to be inspected regularly and any damages must be repaired.


Precipitation Freshwater


Gully erosion is a major problem in East Africa and has to be rehabilitated which is related with high costs. In the picture, a loose stone
dam (check dam or gully plug) should stop the gully erosion. Source: MALESU et al. (2007)

A check dam (also called gully plug) is a small, temporary or permanent dam constructed across a drainage
ditch, swale, or channel to lower the speed of concentrated flows for a certain design range of storm events. A
check dam can be built from wood logs, stone, pea gravelfilled sandbags or bricks and cement (RUFFINO
2009). Reduced runoff speed reduces erosion and gully erosion in the channel and allows sediments and other
pollutants to settle out. Check dams are inexpensive and easy to install. They may be permanent if designed
properly and can be used where it is not possible to otherwise divert flow and stabilise the channel
(POLYTECHNIC n.y.). Furthermore, they allow groundwater recharge (RUFFINO 2009). While gully plugs are
able to retain soil moisture, to harvest runoff water, sand dams (which are similar in appearance) might be the
better solution.

The size and shape of a drainage area, as well as the length and gradient of its slopes, have an effect on the



Check Dams & Gully Plugs

runoff rate and amount of surface water. Therefore, all topographic characteristics should be studied in detail
before gullyplugging work begins. There are several designs for how check dams should be constructed. The
kind of gully plug that should be constructed depends on the local situation (what kind of material is available,
slope gradient, is it a permanent solution, what tasks are intended). In gully control, temporary structural
measures such as wovenwire, brushwood, logs, loose stone and boulder check dams are used to facilitate the
growth of permanent vegetative cover. Check dams are constructed across the gully bed to stop, as already
described, channel and lateral erosion. By reducing the original gradient of the gully channel, check dams
diminish the velocity of water flow and the erosive power of runoff. Runoff during peak flow is conveyed
safely by check dams. Temporary check dams, which have a life span of three to eight years, collect and hold
soil and moisture in the bottom of the gully. Tree seedlings, as well as shrub and grass cuttings planted in
gullies, can grow without being washed away by flowing water. Thus, a permanent vegetative cover can be
established in a short time (FAO 1986).
General Construction Guidelines
(adapted from AKVOPEDIA 2012)
The sides of the check dam must be higher than the centre so that water is always directed over the
centre of the dam (this avoids the dam being outflanked by the flow).
The dam can be made of temporary or permanent materials in natural gullies on the land surface.
Materials used are concrete, earth, vegetation, stone and brushwood. Where earth is used, erosion or
destruction of the structure needs to be avoided to do this, a concrete spillway is often constructed.
As they use the existing drainage system, no design of trench is needed (as with contour trenches).
Do not construct check dams in watercourses or permanently flowing streams without specific design
(because of possible restrictions to fish passage).

In the following section, several check dam methods are introduced (FAO 1986):
Brush fills
Brush fill is a continuous filling of small gullies with brush, branches of trees, stems of bushy vegetation, etc.
This method is also called brush plug and is especially economical where brush is plentiful.
Earth plugs
Earth plugs, which are small structures, are constructed across the gullies. Their main purpose is to hold water
and let it percolate into the ground (see also surface groundwater recharge). In nonhumid regions, small
gullies which are not deeper than 2 metres, with a gully bed gradient of less than 10 per cent, can be
stabilised by a series of earth plugs. In humid regions, earth plugs must be combined with small diversions.
Distribution of earth plugs depends on the gully channel's gradient.
Wovenwire check dams
Wovenwire check dams are small barriers which are usually constructed to hold fine material in the gully.
They are used in gullies with moderate slopes (not more than 10 per cent) and small drainage areas that do not
have flood flows which carry rocks and boulders.
Brushwood check dams



Check Dams & Gully Plugs

Brushwood check dam placed across the gully. Source: FAO (1986)

Brushwood check dams made of posts and brush are placed across the gully. The main objective of brushwood
check dams is to hold fine material carried by flowing water in the gully. Small gully heads, no deeper than
one metre, can also be stabilised by brushwood check dams. Brushwood check dams are temporary structures
and should not be used to treat ongoing problems such as concentrated runoff from roads or cultivated fields.
They can be employed in connection with land use changes such as reforestation or improved range
management until vegetative and slope treatment measures become effective.
Log Check Dam

Front view of a proper designed log check dam. Source: FAO (1986)
Log check dams made of logs and posts are placed across the gully. They can also be built of planks, heavy
boards, slabs, poles or old railroad ties. The main objectives of log check dams are to hold fine and coarse
material carried by flowing water in the gully, and to stabilise gully heads. They are used to stabilise
incipient, small and branch gullies generally not longer than 100 metre and with catchment areas of less than
two hectares. The maximum height of the dam is 1.5 metres from the ground level. Both its downstream and
upstream face inclination is 25 per cent backwards. Its spillway form is rectangular. In general, the length and
depth of its spillway are one to two metres and 0.5 to 0.6 metres.
Loose Stone Check Dams



Check Dams & Gully Plugs

A loose stone dam (front view). Source: FAO (1986)

Loose stone check dams made of relatively small rocks are placed across the gully. The main objectives for
these dams are to control channel erosion along the gully bed and to stop waterfall erosion by stabilising gully
heads. Loose stone check dams are used to stabilise the incipient and small gullies and the branch gullies of a
continuous gully or gully network. The length of the gully channel is not more than 100 metres and the gully
catchment area is two hectares or less. These dams can be used in all regions.

The cost in India is reported to be between US $200400 for temporary dams (made from brush wood, rocks,
soil) and US $1,000 3,000 for permanent dams (made from stones, bricks, cement), depending on the length
and height. Variation depends on materials used and size of gully (AKVOPEDIA 2012). To stop gully erosion,
early interventions are far more economical than late ones. A small gully or rill can be repaired with basic
gully plugs (e.g. brush fills) (FAO 1986).

Check dams should be inspected regularly for sediment accumulation after each significant rainfall. Sediment
should be removed when it reaches onehalf of the original height or before. Check to ensure that the flow is
over the centre of the dam and not either under or around the dam. Check that there is no erosion at the
outfall (AKVOPEDIA 2012).

A check dam (or also called gully plug) is a small, temporary or permanent dam
Working Principle constructed across a drainage ditch, swale, or channel to lower the speed of concentrated
flows for a certain design range of storm events and to conserve soil moisture.
Vegetation cover and gully plugs are used by farmers facing soil loss, probably in regions
with slope on the fields.
High performance: vegetation patterns change runoff peaks and prevent soil loss.
Small dams do not cost much, but work is required. Bigger and permanent constructions
are expensive.
Small plugs can be selfconstructed with local available material. Even though it is more
or less easy to build some knowledge about precipitation, runoff and topography is
Vegetation and plugs have to be controlled several times a year to prevent/repair
A reliable method to minimise soil loss.
Main strength

Water speed is slowed down and infiltrated into the soil. Prevents (gully) erosion.



Check Dams & Gully Plugs

Main weakness

When only focussing on gully plug construction, the main cause of gully development is

This method allows farmers to protect themselves against soil loss problems from runoff. It slows down the
runoff velocity on sloped land, helps to settle out sediments, and helps to retain soil moisture (learn more
about [1528soil moisture conservation here]). Some expert knowledge is required to adapt the correct check
dam (depending on topography, precipitation, material).

Water speed is slowed, which reduces erosion and prevents unwanted gully formation during a flood
No trench design required, just uses existing gully drainage pattern
Can assist recharge of shallow wells
Can reduce salinity in groundwater
Allows groundwater recharge and sediment to settle out (reduces sediment transport)
Cost effective these dams can use locally available materials

They can silt up and will need maintenance
Levels of infiltration can be slow due to silt buildup
Unclear land tenure can result in ownership of the structure
If designed incorrectly, may block fish passage
When only focussing on gully plug construction, the main cause of gully development is missed.

AKVOPEDIA (Editor) (2012): Check Dam (Gully Plugs). URL [Accessed: 09.05.2012].
FAO (Editor) (1986): FAO Watershed Management Field Manual. Gully Control. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations (FAO). URL [Accessed: 09.05.2012].
GSWMA (Editor) (2011): Technical Manual. Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP). Gandhingar: Gujarat State
Watershed Management Agency (GSWMA). URL [Accessed: 08.05.2012].
MALESU, M.M. (Editor); ODUOR, A.R. (Editor); ODHIAMBO, O.J. (Editor) (2007): Green Water Management Handbook. Rainwater
Harvesting for Agricultural Production and Ecological Sustainability. Nairobi: The World Agroforestry Centre. URL [Accessed:
09.05.2012]. PDF
POLYTECHNIC (Editor) (n.y.): Check Dam. Windhoek: Polytechnic of Namibia. URL [Accessed: 08.05.2012]. PDF
RUFFINO, L. (2009): Rainwater Harvesting and Artificial Recharge to Groundwater. Brussels: SAI Platform. URL [Accessed: 09.05.2012].

For further readings, case studies, awareness raising material, training material, important weblinks or
the related powerpoint presentation, see