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Iowa Highway Research Board (IHRB): Development of a Subgrade Drainage Model for Unpaved Roads

Iowa Highway Research Board (IHRB): Development of a Subgrade Drainage Model for Unpaved Roads

With over 68 thousand miles of gravel roads in Iowa and the importance of these roads within the farm-to-market transportation system, proper water management becomes critical for maintaining the integrity of the roadway materials. However, the build-up of water within the aggregate subbase can lead to frost boils and ultimately potholes forming at the road surface. The aggregate subbase and subgrade soils
under these gravel roads are produced with material opportunistically chosen from local sources near the site and, many times, the compositions of these sublayers are far from ideal in terms of proper water drainage with the full effects of this shortcut not being fully understood.
The primary objective of this project was to provide a physically-based model for evaluating the drainability of potential subbase and subgrade materials for gravel roads in Iowa. The Richards equation provided the appropriate framework to study the transient unsaturated flow that usually occurs through the subbase and subgrade of a gravel road.
From which, we identified that the saturated hydraulic conductivity, Ks, was a key parameter driving the time to drain of subgrade soils found in Iowa, thus being a good proxy variable for accessing roadway drainability. Using Ks, derived from soil texture, we were able to identify potential problem areas in terms of roadway drainage.
It was found that there is a threshold for Ks of 15 cm/day that determines if the roadway will drain efficiently, based on the requirement that the time to drain, Td, the surface roadway layer does not exceed a 2-hr limit. Two of the three highest abundant textures (loam and silty clay loam), which cover nearly 60% of the state of Iowa, were found to have average Td values greater than the 2-hr limit.
With such a large percentage of the state at risk for the formation of boils due to the soil with relatively low saturated hydraulic conductivity values, it seems pertinent that we propose alternative design and/or maintenance practices to limit the expensive repair work in Iowa.
The addition of drain tiles or French mattresses my help address drain age problems. However, before pursuing this recommendation, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis is needed.

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