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Engineering Geology 91 (2007) 135 151 www.elsevier.


Preconsolidation stress in the Vega Baja and Media areas of the River Segura (SE Spain): Causes and relationship with piezometric level changes
R. Toms a,, C. Domenech b,c , A. Mira d , A. Cuenca e , J. Delgado b

Departamento de Ingeniera de la Construccin, Obras Pblicas e Infraestructura Urbana, Escuela Politcnica Superior, Universidad de Alicante, P.O. Box 99, E-03080 Alicante, Spain Departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Alicante, P.O. Box 99, E-03080 Alicante, Spain c Instituto Tcnico de la Construccin, S.A., Avda de Elche, 164, E-03006, Alicante, Spain d Ceico S.L., Cra. Nacional 301, Km. 397.9, P.O Box 15, 30100 Espinardo, Murcia, Spain e Laboratorio de Carreteras, Generalitat Valenciana, Ctra. Ocaa s/n, 03005 Alicante, Spain Received 29 September 2006; received in revised form 20 December 2006; accepted 22 January 2007 Available online 31 January 2007

Abstract Preconsolidation stress (p ) is the maximum effective stress that a soil has suffered throughout its life. From a geotechnical point of view, preconsolidation stress has a great importance because it separates elastic and reversible deformations from inelastic and only partially irreversible deformations and marks the starting point of high compressibility. This study calculates the preconsolidation stress for 139 undisturbed soil samples from the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river (SE Spain), using the uniaxial consolidation test and applying the method proposed by Casagrande while using a novel analytical procedure proposed by Gregory et al. [Gregory, A.S., Whalley, W.R., Watts, C.W., Bird, N.R.A., Hallet, P.D., Whitmore, A.P., 2006. Calculation of the compression index and precompression stress from soil compression test data. Soil and Till. Res., 89, 4557] to avoid subjective interpretations of maximum curvature point. The results show overconsolidation ratio (OCR the ratio of preconsolidation stress to current natural overburden stress) values for the 1015 m depth of soil varying from 2 to 14 and maximum preconsolidation stresses above 800 kPa. The main causes of calculated preconsolidation identified are desiccation due to seasonal drying and wetting cycles that have induced additional stresses always lower than 42 kPa for the more superficial samples. Water level decline due to the reduction of recharge suffered by the aquifer system during periods of drought and the uncontrolled withdrawal of water is considered to be the second cause of anomalous OCR values. This second cause induces low stresses to the more superficial layers (lower than 41 kPa) that can reach values higher than 150 kPa for the deeper layers for known water level decreases. In consequence, the soils of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river are highly overconsolidated for the first 5 m, decreasing gradually with depth to 1015 m deep. For samples located deeper than 15 m the soils seem to be underconsolidated, probably due to the existence of confined aquifers that cause deviations from a hydrostatic and linear pore pressure model. This fact has a huge practical significance which implies that deformations affecting superficial layers are lower than those expected for deeper layers for the same load. 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Preconsolidation stress; Piezometric level; Desiccation; Casagrande method

Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: roberto.tomas@ua.es (R. Toms), geotecnia.alicante@itcsa.es (C. Domenech), andresmira@ceico.es (A. Mira), Cuenca_art@gva.es (A. Cuenca), Jose.delgado@ua.es (J. Delgado). 0013-7952/$ - see front matter 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.enggeo.2007.01.006


R. Toms et al. / Engineering Geology 91 (2007) 135151

1. Introduction Preconsolidation stress ( p), also called precompression stress, precompaction stress or preload stress (Dawidowski and Koolen, 1994), is the maximum effective stress that the soil has suffered throughout its life and is used to describe the stress history of cohesive soils. A soil is said to be overconsolidated when it has been subjected to vertical effective stresses higher than the ones acting currently. From a geotechnical point of view, preconsolidation stress is of great importance because it separates elastic and reversible deformations from inelastic and partially irreversible deformations. In other words, preconsolidation stress marks the start of high compressibility. This fact is of great importance in predicting expected settlement of foundations or embankments because underestimated preconsolidation may cause overestimation of the magnitude of consolidation settlement and thus make more expensive and time-consuming geotechnical solutions necessary. It is also of major significance for soils suffering subsidence due to piezometric water level decrease, because preconsolidation stress indicates the maximum stresses generated by the increased stresses caused by a fall in the water level (Hoffman, 2003). This point marks the piezometric level position separating non-elastic and irrecoverable subsidence from elastic and recoverable subsidence (Jorgensen, 1980; Holzer 1981; Hoffman, 2003). Preconsolidation stress is normally calculated by a uniaxial confined compressive stress test (AENOR, 1994) using an oedometer cell. The results of this test are plotted on a logarithm of the normal effective stress against void ratio (e) or unitary strain (). The resulting graph shows two different branches. The first is called the elastic curve (or elastic recharge curve if it results from a reload of soil sample) and is characterized by low deformations that are recoverable if unloading occurs. The second is called the virgin compression curve and occurs for higher stresses than the former. It is characterized by its linearity and for the strains being irrecoverable. The point that separates the two branches is the preconsolidation stress. Several authors have proposed methods to estimate preconsolidation stress of a soil sample: Casagrande (1936), Pacheco-Silva (1970), Tavenas et al. (1979), Gregory et al. (2006), among others. Supposing hydrostatic conditions and rejecting tectonic stresses, a natural soil located at a depth z supports a stress called natural overburden stress (NOS or o ) due to the weight of the soil column above it. The relationship between preconsolidation stress and

natural overburden stress is the overconsolidation ratio (OCR): V OCR rp V=ro 1

This ratio indicates whether the soil is overconsolidated (OCR N 1), normally consolidated (OCR = 1) or underconsolidated (OCR b 1). Overconsolidation can be due to several causes (Kenny, 1964; Stapledon, 1970; Jimnez Salas and De Justo Alpas, 1976; Hobbs et al., 1976; Feda, 1978; Holzer, 1981; Selby and Lindsay, 1982; Graham and Shields, 1985; Stamatopoulos and Kotzias, 1985; Cetin, 2000; Arvidsson, 2001; Tovey, 2002; Cetin, 2005): Soil erosion at ground surface. Melting of ice overburden existing in the past. Changes in groundwater level that cause an increase in effective stresses. Water flow through soil that produces a reordering of soil particles generating more compacted systems. Desiccation of soil due to changes in moisture content. Diagenesis due to organic or inorganic processes. This includes cementing, changes in ion concentration, oxidation, depositional conditions and mineralogical composition. Tectonic activity. Anthropic induced stresses. This study is part of a project designed to estimate ground settlement in the valley of the Segura river (SE Spain, Fig. 1), an area where medium to soft soils are present and settlement is a geotechnical problem of prime importance (Delgado et al., 2003). For such a study, identifying the current stress history of soils in the area, expressed as the preconsolidation stress and the overconsolidation ratio (OCR), will help to establish the future behaviour of soils when loaded. To this end, we estimated the preconsolidation stress and the overconsolidation ratios for 139 undisturbed soil samples by means of the uniaxial consolidation test applying the Casagrande method and using a novel analytical procedure, proposed by Gregory et al. (2006), to avoid deviations due to subjective interpretations of the point of maximum curvature. It is well known that undrained shear strength (su) is closely related to overconsolidation (Stamatopoulos and Kotzias, 1985; Atkinson et al., 1987; Houlsby and Wroth, 1991; Mesri and Ali, 1999; Larsson and Ahnberg, 2005). As a result, in this study undrained shear strength data obtained from undrained and unconsolidated (UU) triaxial tests (AENOR, 1998) and from undrained cone penetration tests (CPTU) (AENOR, 1993) was used to

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Fig. 1. Geological map of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river.

demonstrate overconsolidation. Although not the ideal test devices for estimating undrained shear strength (Devinzenci, 2002), standard penetration tests (SPT) (AENOR, 1992) are also related to undrained shear strength and, as a consequence, with soil overconsolidation. As a result, they are also used to show the overconsolidation affecting the soils being studied. Finally, possible causes of overconsolidation of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river soils were analysed. 2. The study area 2.1. Location and physical geography of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river The Segura river valley is located in SE Spain (Fig. 1) and covers an area of about 500 km2 corresponding to the provinces of Alicante and Murcia. It is known as the

Vega Media (VMSR) in the province of Murcia and as the Vega Baja (VBSR) in the province of Alicante. The main cities in the area are located in the VMSR (Murcia), where the capital city of Murcia and its metropolitan area concentrate more than 500,000 inhabitants. On the other hand, the VBSR is characterized by small, disperse towns, with Orihuela (approx. 55,000 inhabitants) being the main urban nucleus in this sector of the valley. The study area has a Mediterranean type climate, with an average annual precipitation of 280 mm. In summer (JuneAugust) the climate is arid while most of the precipitations are concentrated in the autumn (October November). The average annual temperature is 18 C, but can sometimes exceed 40 C in summer. The topography of this valley is flat, decreasing in altitude from W to E, as the river approaches its mouth in the Mediterranean Sea. The valley is limited by


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mountain ranges where old, deformed materials outcrops (the Carrascoy range to the S, and the Crevillente range to the N). There are also some relief features, the Orihuela and Callosa mountains, in the middle of the flood plain. 2.2. Geological setting of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river The VMSR and VBSR are located in the eastern part of the Bajo Segura basin (Montenat, 1977). The valley trends in an NESW to ENEWSW direction, controlled by active faults, particularly the Crevillente fault to the north and the Bajo Segura fault to the south (Alfaro, 1995) (Fig. 1). Tectonic activity occurring since the Late Miocene has folded both the basement rocks (Paleozoic to Mesozoic) and the basin fill (Upper Miocene to Quaternary). The Segura river valley occurs within one synform formed by this activity. The nature of the materials outcropping along the boundaries of the valley varies depending on the site (Fig. 1). The southern border of the VMSR consists of rocks of the basin basement (Permian to Triassic in age), raised to ground surface by the activity of the Bajo Segura fault. Meanwhile, the northern border consists of sedimentary rocks (Upper Miocene to Pliocene) deposited in the basin (marls, sandstones and conglomerates). Towards the E, the southern border is made up of marls, sandstones and conglomerates of the basin fill (Pliocene to Pleistocene in age), while the northern border consists of limestones of the basin basement (Mesozoic) and alluvial fan sediments developed at the base of this mountain front. The materials found in the valley, corresponding to the aforementioned flat areas are recent (Holocene at ground surface, Pleistocene at some depth) sediments deposited by the River Segura and, in the eastern zones, the Mediterranean Sea (littoral and lagoonal sediments). Some anthropic deposits can be also found at certain points in the valley. Flood plain sediments are principally fine (CL, ML, CLML and sometimes OL and CH) with low content of fine sand (SM) and lagoonal sediments are composed by fine sediments without sand layers (Rodrguez Jurado et al., 2000; Delgado et al., 2003). Finally, the littoral sediments consist of poorly graded sands and gravels with low fine content (SP). X-ray diffraction test indicated that soils are principally composed by calcite (5075%) and quartz (20%) with minor contents of feldspars, dolomite and kaolinite (Delgado et al., 2003). These recent sediments are the most compressible ones in the zone and the most problematic from a geotechnical point of view. Rodrguez Jurado et al. (2000) and Delgado

et al. (2003) made a geotechnical characterization of all these materials for the VMSR and VBSR, respectively. Their models show that the same sedimentary rocks outcropping at the valley borders are also found at some depth in the valley, varying between 0 to 30 m towards the W of the valley and 0 to N 60 m close to the river mouth (Delgado et al., 2000), and constitute a geotechnical substrate of the area. Above this basement, recent sediments are characterized by moderate to high compressibility. A detailed description of sediment distribution and geotechnical properties can be found elsewhere (Rodrguez Jurado et al., 2000; Delgado et al., 2003). 2.3. Hydrological setting of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river The VMSR and VBSR are part of the so-called GuadalentnSegura Quaternary aquifer System No. 47 (IGME, 1986). This aquifer is characterized by two units (Cern and Pulido, 1996; Aragn et al., 2004): a surface unit, an unconfined aquifer, of fine sand and silts deposited by the recent activity of the Segura river and coastal processes (towards the E of the zone). The water table of this aquifer is found a few meters below ground surface. Due to the high fine content of sediments, this aquifer is characterized by low hydraulic conductivity, so it is scarcely exploited in the VMSR, and seldom in the VBSR, where a high saline content prevents it. Consequently, water level shows small (dm to m) seasonal changes. The second unit is formed by the conglomerates present in the sedimentary rocks that exist below the superficial sediments. These conglomerates are usually stratified alternating with marls, and constitute a confined aquifer with greater hydraulic conductivity than the superficial aquifer. There are several levels of conglomerates of hydrological interest. The most exploited is the most superficial one, located about 30 m deep in the VMSR and 35 to 55 m deep in the VBSR. Its piezometric level is found a few meters below ground surface in the VMSR and about 3 m above it in the VBSR (Fig. 2). The piezometric levels of this aquifer show notable variations over time due to overexploitation in periods of drought (Fig. 3). This was especially noticeable during the 1992 95 period, where peaks of 15 m of piezometric level descent were recorded (Aragn et al., 2004). As a consequence, widespread subsidence affected both VMSR and VBSR, causing damage to structures and a great public concern (Mulas et al., 2003; Martnez et al., 2004). Toms et al. (2005, 2006) measured such ground subsidence in the metropolitan area of Murcia and

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Fig. 2. Multilayer piezometer data. Note the different piezometric level existing at different depths. See location of the multipiezometer at Fig. 4.

Orihuela during this drought period by means of differential SAR interferometry, detecting maximum movements of 6 cm and 4 cm respectively. Other layers of conglomerates of interest from a hydrological point of view are found at greater depths, but little is known about them. Generally, no connection between surface and the deeper unit exists. They are only connected throw the existing well and in some border areas of the valley (IGME-DPA, 1996). 2.4. Previous data on the preconsolidation stress of the soils The preconsolidation stress of the city of Murcia was calculated using the Casagrande graphical method by Vzquez and De Justo (2002). They worked with 12 undisturbed samples from geotechnical reports taken before 1995 (before the period of piezometric level decline). The OCR values of shallow samples (0 to 5 m) varied from 0.6 to 1.9, with an average value of 1.3, with only two samples underconsolidated. The other 4 samples (5 to 10 m) were underconsolidated, with OCR values varying from 0.6 to 0.9 and an average value of 0.7. Accordingly, soils seem to be slightly overconsolidated close to ground surface but become normally consolidated to underconsolidated at shallow depths. Devinzenci (2003) described a shallow and overconsolidated layer affected by desiccation and pumping from the lower gravel aquifer that constitutes the geotechnical substratum of the city of Murcia (VMSR), using CPTU on-site tests.

3. Methodology used to estimate preconsolidation stress Preconsolidation stress was calculated for 139 undisturbed soil samples taken from boreholes drilled for geotechnical studies performed in the zone (see location in Fig. 4). The undisturbed samples were taken using a 77.5 mm and 89.0 mm diameter Shelby samplers following French recommendations (AFNOR, 1995) of compulsory application in Spain. This type of

Fig. 3. Piezometric evolution of several wells of the Vega Media and Baja of the Segura river. See piezometer location in Fig. 4.


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thin wall sampler provides a high quality samples that minimize the structural properties disturbance of the fine-cohesive soils. The tests were carried out on samples measuring 50 mm (diameter) by 12 mm (height), following UNE recommendations (AENOR, 1994). Anomalous tests (i.e., steps, lags, etc.) were rejected. A total of 114 samples came from the VBSR area, with their sampling depths ranging from 1.3 to 40.4 m. The remaining samples were taken from the VMSR, at research depths varying from 2.2 to 18.5 m. In an important part of the VMSR there is a gravel layer at depths varying from 10 to 30 m and normally used as geotechnical substratum for deep foundations. This explains the absence of samples taken at greater depths in this zone. The method used to estimate preconsolidation stress in this work is that proposed by Casagrande (Fig. 5). This method uses the maximum curvature point, M, (or minimum curvature radius point) of the e-log curve to draw a line parallel to log axis (h). A tangent line (t) to the e-log curve is also drawn at the same point. Finally the bisector line (b) of the two lines previously drawn is represented. The stress corresponding to the intersection

of the bisector line (b) with the virgin compression curve corresponds to preconsolidation stress (p). In this method, the location of the point M is a key question. It is usually an educated guess by the researcher, giving rise to a high degree of subjectivity. To avoid this problem, we used an analytical-mathematical procedure proposed by Gregory et al. (2006). It consists of fitting a curve to the uniaxial consolidation test data to calculate its curvature radius function and optimizing it to obtain the maximum curvature point M needed by the Casagrande method to gain soil compression properties (Fig. 5). Specifically, we fitted an asymmetrical sigmoidal curve, known as a Gompertz curve, whose mathematical expression is: e a c expexpblog10 r Vm 2

Where a, b, c and m are constants obtained by means of least-square fitting, e is the void ratio and is the vertical effective stress. This curve was chosen because the square regression coefficient was better than those obtained by fitting other sigmoidal curves such as fourthorder polynomial and symmetrical logistic sigmoidal.

Fig. 4. Geotechnical boreholes, wells and piezometer location map.

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Fig. 5. Graphical estimation of preconsolidation stress.

The maximum curvature point (M ), necessary to apply the Casagrande method was calculated optimizing the curvature radius function () of the least-square fitting Gompertz curve given by the expression: d 2 e=d log10 r V2 jh i3=2 : 1 de=d log10 r V2 3

This summary is included here for the sake of completeness. A detailed description of this methodology can be found in Gregory et al. (2006). Natural overburden stress (NOS), which corresponds to the vertical effective stress (o) of the soil at a depth z, was calculated as: ro V ro u 7

Solving this expression by means of a numerical method: dj 0 d log10 r V 4

The different terms of expression (3) are obtained by deriving expression (2), giving the following expressions: de b c expexpblog10 r Vm d log10 r V 5 expblog10 r Vm d2 e b2 c expexpblog10 r Vm 2 d log10 r V expblog10 r Vm expblog10 r Vm1 6

Where o is the vertical total stress at a depth z, which was calculated by adding the result of multiplying specific weight (bulk or saturated specific weight, depending on the position with respect to water table) by the thickness of all the layers making up the soil column. The second term, u, represents pore pressure. It was calculated as the stress caused by the water column acting at depth z, multiplying 3 water specific weight, w (set to 10 KN m ) by the depth in question by means of the expression: u zhgw 8

With h being the depth of water table from surface. Note that hydrostatic distribution with depth of pore pressure has been assumed. This approximation can


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For the VMSR samples, the preconsolidation stresses and OCR values vary from 34.6 to 953.9 kPa and 0.3 to 14.3, respectively. From Figs. 6, 7 and 9, and Table 1, it is clear that all samples taken between ground surface and a depth of 5 m are highly overconsolidated, with OCR varying from 1.4 to 14.3 (average value of 5.2). From 5 to 10 m, 86% of the samples are slightly overconsolidated with OCR values varying from 0.7 to 7.6 (average of 2.0). From 10 to 25 m, the samples are very slightly overconsolidated (55%) and frequently underconsolidated (37%), with OCR values varying from 0.3 to 5.2 (average of 1.3). For depths greater than 25 m, most of the samples are underconsolidated (84%), due to the existing high pore pressure that causes deviation from hydrostatic linear models and only 12% are normally consolidated. Only one sample is overconsolidated in this depth range, with an OCR value of 1.3. The underconsolidated stresses estimated for depths greater than 25 m can be explained by the way in which pore pressures were calculated. We considered a

Fig. 6. Preconsolidation stress calculated by depth.

cause deviations from real effective stress when the piezometric level is higher in confined aquifer layers. Finally, overconsolidation ratio (OCR) was calculated by substituting preconsolidation stress, calculated by the above exposed method, and natural overburden stress (Eq. (7)) in Eq. (1). 4. Results of preconsolidation stresses The results obtained are presented in Figs. 69 and Table 1. Fig. 7 shows the variation of OCR with depth. Fig. 6 shows the distribution of preconsolidation stress with depth. Fig. 8 shows the vertical effective stress (o ), the preconsolidation stress (p ) and the OCR for several representative and complete boreholes in the study area. Finally, Fig. 9 shows the interpolated OCR values for different depths. The fits of the Gompertz function provided square correlation coefficients that always exceeded 0.9987. The preconsolidation stresses vary from 49.1 to 813.5 kPa while the OCR vary from 0.4 to 12.2 for VBSR samples.

Fig. 7. Overconsolidation ratio (OCR) calculated by depth. The effective natural overburden stress (o ) used to calculate OCR of every sample has been calculated using all the available geotechnical information of the considered borehole and not an average value for all samples.

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Fig. 8. Natural vertical stress, preconsolidation stress and overconsolidation ratio variation by depth at several geotechnical boreholes of the study area. See location of boreholes in Fig. 4.

hydrostatic situation related to the most superficial, unconfined aquifer, with the water table located at the position below ground surface indicated in the borehole record. Nevertheless, a multilayer piezometer recently installed at Almorad showed that each aquifer in the zone had its own water table/piezometric level (Fig. 2; see Fig. 4 for location). The piezometer located 25 m deep showed the position of the water table of the unconfined aquifer associated with the river. Nevertheless, this figure also showed that aquifer associated to a first conglomerate layer, located about 50 m deep in this area, had a piezometric level more than 3 m above ground surface. This means that there is a difference of

40 kPa between estimated pore pressures (Eq. (8)) and real pore pressures. If we take this difference into account, most of the samples taken at depths greater than 25 m become normally consolidated. Finally, the analysis of the spatial distribution of samples showed that no significant variations in the OCR values and preconsolidation stresses occurred between samples taken at the VBSR and at the VMSR (Table 1 and Fig. 9). However, as it is noticed at Fig. 9, that shows the spatial distribution of interpolated OCR values for the entire study zone, OCR values for 0 to 10 m depth are slightly higher for the east sector of the Vega Baja of the Segura river. A part of this sector corresponds to old

144 R. Toms et al. / Engineering Geology 91 (2007) 135151

Fig. 9. Interpolated OCR maps of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river for different depths: (a) from 0 to 5 m; (b) from 5 to 10 m; and (c) from 10 to 25 m.

R. Toms et al. / Engineering Geology 91 (2007) 135151 Table 1 Preconsolidation properties of the VBSR and VMSR soil samples Preconsolidation stress, kPa (p ) Max. VBSR 05 m 510 m 1025 m VMSR 05 m 510 m 1025 m 531 503 813 Min. 49 50 59 Avr. 224 216 240 OCR Max. 12.2 5.5 5.2 Min. 1.4 0.7 0.3 Avr. 5.3 2.1 1.3


534 954 336

78 92 35

258 256 157

14.3 7.6 2.2

1.5 0.7 0.3

4.9 2.5 1.0

VBSR and VMSR 05 m 534 510 m 954 1025 m 813

49 50 35

236 229 239

14.3 7.6 5.2

1.4 0.7 0.3

5.2 2.0 1.3 Fig. 11. SPT values of fine alluvial sediments.

Max.: maximum; Min.: minimum; Avr.: average.

marshlands that were partially desiccated by human activity (Canales and Vera Rebollo, 1985). 5. Variation of shear strength with depth Soil shear strength is slightly related with preconsolidation stress and consequently with OCR (Stamatopoulos and Kotzias, 1985; Atkinson et al., 1987; Houlsby and Wroth, 1991; Mesri and Ali, 1999; Larsson

and Ahnberg, 2005). Mesri and Ali (1999) have established numerical relationships between OCR and undrained shear strength (su). These have different forms but all of them establish that undrained shear strength increases proportionally with OCR and preconsolidation stress. The results of undrained and unconsolidated (UU) triaxial tests show a linear increase of shear strength with depth (Fig. 10a), which follow a linear model.

Fig. 10. (a) Variation of undrained shear strength obtained from UU triaxial tests (su) and (b) su / o ratio by depth.


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However, for depths lower than 10 m there exist several anomalous values of su, two or three times higher than those theoretically expected according to this linear model. Considering that for normally consolidated soil, the ratio of undrained soil shear strength (su) and natural overburden stress (o ) is near 0.25 (Wood, 1990), values higher than that indicate that the soils under study are overconsolidated for the first 10 m (Fig. 10b). Robles (personal communication) observed that uniaxial compressive strength qu (related to undrained shear strength, su = qu / 2) of the more superficial layers of silt and clay existing at Murcia city significantly increased its value after the subsidence associated with water level decline occurred. Although it is not the best test to estimate undrained shear strength, the standard penetration test (SPT) is an indirect way of estimating su variation for fine sediments (Devinzenci, 2003). In the study zone, the results of this test showed behaviours similar to those detected with the UU triaxial tests. So, the variation of SPT with depth for the VBSR and VMSR (Fig. 11) showed a relative linear

increase with depth for tests performed between 10 and 40 m. However, this tendency was not followed for the most superficial tests, which showed greater values. The undrained shear strength (su) obtained from undrained cone penetration tests (CPTU) are superimposed on preconsolidation stress (p ), vertical effective stress (o ) and OCR in order to show the increase of su with overconsolidation for several boreholes (Fig. 12). A general overall behaviour can be observed in the above figures: soils between 0 and 10 m deep show shear strengths greater than those located below them. This can be interpreted as an effect that the preconsolidation of soils has on their geotechnical properties. 6. Analysis of results 6.1. Causes of preconsolidation stress An important aspect of the problem analysed is its origin. In the study zone, two main superimposed causes could explain the preconsolidation observed. These

Fig. 12. CPTU values. Note the high anomalous values between 0 and 10 m according to OCR values.

R. Toms et al. / Engineering Geology 91 (2007) 135151 Table 2 Decomposition of the preconsolidation stress of geotechnical samples of the VBSR and VMSR in different terms Sample ORIPAL ORI IV O1 ORI AUG O2 BENIEL BENIEL BENIEL CR6 AT RONDASUR HP PROG Depth (m) 1.9 2.7 4.3 4.3 4.8 2.7 4.9 5.3 2.8 4.1 5.2 5.7 5.7 WLD (m) 2.3 1.8 1.5 1.0 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.3 1.9 4.2 4.4 4.6 2.4 Date of drilling 1999 1996 1994 1990 1994 2006 2006 2006 2004 2001 2005 2003 2005 Location VBS VBS VBS VBS VBS VMS VMS VMS VMS VMS VMS VMS VMS Water level decrease range (m) 5.710.1 5.710.1 5.710.1 5.710.1 5.710.1 17.317.7 17.317.7 17.317.7 4.88.9 4.88.9 4.88.9 4.88.9 4.88.9 OCR 5.9 3.4 4.6 2.8 3.7 4.8 2.7 3.6 3.4 1.5 2.5 2.2 2.1 p (kPa) [1] 226 141 267 140 229 190 158 232 148 123 235 229 153 o (kPa) [2] 38 41 58 49 63 39 58 64 43 81 96 102 73 M PLD (kPa) [3] 0a 1 27 34 36 14 37 41 9 0a 8 11 32


D (kPa) [1][2][3] 188 99 182 57 130 137 63 127 96 42 131 116 b 48

The water level decrease range was obtained using the nearest available piezometers to the geotechnical borehole. WLD: Water level depth in the borehole during drilling. a Sample located over water level. b Saline veins have been observed between 1.4 and 2.5 m depth.

are: the piezometric level decrease and desiccation due to wetting and drying cycles with pedological reworking. Other causes seem to have a minor effect (tectonic causes) or are simply impossible in the geological context of the study zone (erosion). We tried to estimate the contribution of each of these causes to the preconsolidation of soils. For this purpose we can suppose that preconsolidation stress is the sum of several elements: rp V ro V Dr M V PLD Dr D V 9

Where p is the calculated effective preconsolidation stress, o is the effective natural overburden stress existing at present, MPLD is the maximum effective stress increase due to piezometric level variation in the past, and D is the effective stress increase due to desiccation and other associated causes such as pedological processes. Preconsolidation stress and effective natural overburden stress terms of Eq. (9) can be calculated following the methodology outlined in Section 3. The effective stress increment due to piezometric level changes can be calculated by using the known piezometric level evolution. Consequently the third term of Eq. (9), corresponding to effective stress due to desiccation can be isolated and calculated. Table 2 shows the results calculated for several superficial samples of the study area. Note that we have not included samples of the more easterly sector of the VBSR because no long-time series of piezometric data are available.

6.1.1. Preconsolidation due to piezometric level decline When the water level goes down due to natural or anthropic causes, both u and o decrease in Eq. (8), resulting in an increase in the vertical effective vertical stresses (o ) acting on soil particles. Assuming hydrostatic conditions, each meter of water level descent implies that pore pressure reduces by 10 kPa and at the same time a change in the terrain loading equivalent to the emerged depth multiplied by the bulk density, which was previously multiplied by saturated density. The maximum water level lowering suffered by the soil throughout its history ( MPLD) will be recorded by the soil as a part of the preconsolidation stress (p). Holzer (1981) calculated preconsolidation values at several aquifers in the United States of America, due to water level decline caused by water withdrawal, ranging from approximately 160 to 620 kPa, based on the rate between water decline and subsidence. In the VMSR and VBSR, maximum falls in water levels were about 17 m and 10 m, respectively, during the period 19732004. Unfortunately no data for previous periods exists, nevertheless aquifer exploitation is maximum at present (compared with the past) so assuming that current levels are the minimum historic ones is not unrealistic. These drops represent maximum effective stress increases of about 42153 kPa in the VMSR and 4987 kPa in the VBSR, depending on the site for each zone. These increases in effective stresses gave rise to the generalized subsidence in a great part of the study zone previously commented.


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Maximum possible calculated stress (supposing a total draining and dissipation of pore pressure) due to water level lowering ( MPLD) has been calculated for several representative samples of the VMSR and the VBSR. These values are always lower than 50 kPa (Table 2). It is important to note that preconsolidation stresses measured with consolidation tests show values higher than the ones produced by water level decrease for superficial samples. Stresses induced by known piezometric lowering only explain a part of the preconsolidation stresses calculated (less than 40% overconsolidation). A greater water level descent could explain the excess overconsolidation, but this seems rather unrealistic for this zone. 6.1.2. Preconsolidation due to desiccation The second cause of preconsolidation in the VMSR and the VBSR is desiccation. Significant seasonal moisture content changes may cause desiccations and reworking by pedological processes such as biological activity and secondary calcite formation (Cetin, 2000). Desiccation, and especially seasonal desiccation, caused by repeated wet and dry cycles induces significant microscale stresses. These microscale stresses, referred to as negative pore pressures, are due to an equivalent internal tension resulting from moisture and capillary water evaporation. Tschebotarioff (1951) assumed that very high stresses can be generated by desiccation in very fine soils establishing values of stress due to capillarity effects changing from 0.15 kPa to 305 kPa for grain sizes varying from coarse sand to clay respectively. Other authors have noticed preconsolidation pressures in excess of 400 kPa (Stapledon, 1970; Selby and Lindsay, 1982). OCR values from 3 to 7 and from two to three times as high due to desiccation have been calculated by O'Neill and Yoon (1995) in pro delta and backswamp environments respectively. OCR values as high as 8 are sometimes found at the top layers of Singapore clay probably due to desiccation (Chu et al., 2002). This phenomenon mainly affects the vadose zone of the VBSR and VMSR fill, where water content changes are notable and pedological reworking can be significant. The pedological processes are principally induced by plant root activity (observed at more superficial layers of almost all available geotechnical boreholes) and are normally shown as slightly cemented horizons. Total desiccation due to the emersion of the more superficial soils layers is evident in the drained wetland areas located at east of the Vega Baja (Fig. 9a) were phreatic water can temporally spring up over the surface during wet periods (IGME-DPA, 1996).

The VBSR and VMSR enjoy a typical Mediterranean climate with low precipitations and hot summers. Summer temperatures can reach to 43, when the direct insolation over the surface can favour evaporation of soil water that is present in form of humidity or capillary ascent. Seasonal fluctuations of water level are also common in this area due to the reduction of inputs to the aquifer and increased water withdrawals. Consequently, the first 5 m of soil column of the VBSR and VMSR could be overconsolidated due to these causes. Using Eq. (9), calculated values of the contribution of desiccation to preconsolidation stress ( D) for representative superficial samples could vary from 42 to 188 kPa (Table 2). 6.2. Effect of preconsolidation on the deformational behaviour of soils The preconsolidation stress in soil samples of the VMSR and VBSR was quantified and presented in previous sections (Figs. 69, Tables 1 and 2). These results show that soils are clearly overconsolidated in the range 05 m, slightly overconsolidated between 5 and 10 m and normally consolidated between 10 and 25 m. For depths higher than 25 m computed OCR is lower than 1 (underconsolidated) due to a pore pressure undervaluation because it does not respond to a hydrostatic model. For the purpose of analysing the deformational behaviour of soils when loaded, these results are of great importance. Load can have two main causes: surface loads (due to civil works) or loads due to aquifer overexploitation and water table descent. Each of these causes will have a different consequence. When soils are loaded at their surface, most of stresses are supported by the superficial layers of soils. In the case of the VMSR and VBSR, these layers are rather rigid and their deformability will be, mainly, in the elastic range. This means that ground settlement under typical structures made in this zone (builds of two to four stages) will be from small to moderate. On the contrary, when stresses increase due to loads affecting deeper layers of soil, ground surface settlement will become greater. This has been observed under large embankments built in the zone (Delgado et al., 2003; Toms et al., 2000), where settlements of up to 1 m were recorded, and may be also the cause of widespread damage caused during past periods of drought (Mulas et al., 2003; Toms et al., 2005). In this case, stress increase affects a thick layer of normally consolidated soils, where plastic, irrecoverable, deformations can occur with even a small increase in effective stresses.

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When superficial loads or aquifer discharges due to overexploitation could affect soil layers located at depths deeper than 25 m it would be recommended to measure carefully pore pressure in order not to cause a settlement prediction overvaluation. 7. Conclusions Preconsolidation stress is an important geotechnical parameter that separates the elastic and inelastic strain ranges of soils. This is of major importance for geotechnical engineers because it controls ground settlement and, as a consequence, the sizing of the foundations of structures. We calculated such stress for 139 samples taken from geotechnical boreholes drilled in the VBSR and VMSR, using oedometer tests using the method of Casagrande combined with a numerical method proposed by Gregory et al. (2006) to avoid subjective interpretations of the maximum curvature point. Estimated preconsolidation stresses higher than the ones expected in the Quaternary soils of the Vega Baja and Media of the Segura river have been measured. These soils have recorded the effective stresses caused by water level changes and desiccation. Overconsolidation principally affects the upper fringe of the soil column (0 to 5 m depth) with OCR values ranging from 14.3 to 1.4. From 5 to 10 m, soil samples are slightly consolidated, with OCR values varying from 7.6 to 0.7. For depths greater than 10 m, the soil can be considered as normally consolidated. Overconsolidation of shallow layers of soils was also shown by the shear strength properties of these soils. Uniaxial compressive strength and undrained shear strength corroborate the above-mentioned phenomenon, showing anomalous values of undrained shear strength for the 010 m. On-site tests like SPT also show this behaviour for surface tests. Causes of such overconsolidation may be explained by the water table changes occurred in the past and the desiccation processes related with these changes. For example, induced stresses by water table descent can explain an overconsolidation stress increase varying from 0 to 41 kPa for the more superficial samples, and from 42 to 153 kPa for deeper layers. Nevertheless, these increases are only a part of the calculated overconsolidation stresses. Water table oscillations cause an increase in effective stresses of the saturated fringe affected by water level variations. Furthermore, these variations can cause changes in soil moisture content that favour preconsolidation stresses due to desiccation processes due to the negative gen-

erated pore pressures. In addition, pedogenic processes affecting the more superficial soil layers, such as biological processes and secondary calcite precipitation, have been observed at a few points in the area studied. Overconsolidation stresses varying from 42 to 188 kPa for the more superficial samples have been attributed to this phenomenon in the VBSR and the VMSR. Finally, this overconsolidation is considered of great practical importance when considering the deformational behaviour of soils when loaded. Small loads applied at ground surface (as the ones induced by the spread foundation of a single family building) will affect the most surficial layer of soils, those most heavily overconsolidated. Thus, only small scale, elastic and recoverable strains may be expected. On the contrary, a great increase in stress (as the ones induced by a road embankment) can affect deeper, normally consolidated (and more deformable), layers of soils causing important inelastic and irrecoverable strains. Acknowledgements Our thanks to Dr. A.S. Gregory (Rothamsted Research, UK) for the preconsolidation calculus Excel spreadsheet and P. Robles (Esfera, S.L.) and P. Alfaro (University of Alicante) for their helpful comments. This study was partially funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology and FEDER (Project TEC200506863), by the Valencia Regional Government (Project GV06/179 and GRUPOS03/085) and by the University of Alicante (Project VIGROB-157). The companies CEICO S.L. and ITC S.A. kindly provided part of the geotechnical data used. The Excelentsima Diputacin Provincial de Alicante (DPA) and Instituto Geolgico y Minero de Espaa (IGME) were kind enough to provide piezometric and hydrological data. References
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