In June 2003, nine years after construction began, the state-owned China Yangtze Three Gorges Development Corporation (CTGPC) filled the reservoir with 445 feet (135 meters) of water, the first of three increments in achieving the eventual depth of 575 feet (175 meters). The result is a narrow lake 410 miles (660 kilometers) long—60 miles (97 kilometers) longer than Lake Superior—and 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) wide, twice the width of the natural river channel. Scientists' early warnings came true just a month later, when around 700 million cubic feet (20 million cubic meters) of rock slid into the Qinggan River, just two miles (three kilometers) from where it flows into the Yangtze, spawning 65-foot (20-meter) waves that claimed the lives of 14 people. Despite the devastating results, the corporation three years later (in September 2006) raised the water level further—to 512 feet (156 meters). Since then, the area has experienced a series of problems, including dozens of landslides along one 20-mile (32-kilometer) stretch of riverbank. This past November, the ground gave out near the entrance to a railway tunnel in Badong County, near a tributary to the Three Gorges reservoir; 4,000 cubic yards (3,050 cubic meters) of earth and rock tumbled onto a highway. The landslide buried a bus, killing at least 30 people.
Fan Xiao, a geologist at the Bureau of Geological Exploration and Exploitation of Mineral Resources in Sichuan province, near several Yangtze tributaries, says the landslides are directly linked to filling the reservoir. Water first seeps into the loose soil at the base of the area's rocky cliffs, destabilizing the land and making it prone to slides. Then the reservoir water level fluctuates—engineers partially drain the reservoir in summer to accommodate flood waters and raise it again at the end of flood season to generate power—and the abrupt change in water pressure further disturbs the land. In a study published in the Chinese journal Tropical Geography in 2003, scholars at Guangzhou’s South China Normal University predicted that such tinkering with the water level could trigger activity in 283 landslide-prone areas.
That is apparently what happened to the 99 villagers of Miaohe, 10 miles (17 kilometers) upstream of the Yangtze, who saw the land behind their homes split into a 655-foot- (200-meter-) wide crack last year, soon after the reservoir water level was lowered for the summer floods. Officials evacuated them to a mountain tunnel where they camped for three months.
One of the greatest fears is that the dam may trigger severe earthquakes, because the reservoir sits on two major faults: the Jiuwanxi and the Zigui–Badong. According to Fan, changing the water level strains them. "When you alter the fault line's mechanical state," he says, "it can cause fault activity to intensify and induce earthquakes."
Many scientists believe this link between temblors and dams—called reservoir-induced seismicity—may have been what happened at California's Oroville Dam, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The largest earthen dam in the U.S., it was constructed on an active fault line in the 1950s and filled in 1968. Seven years later, when the reservoir's water supply was restored to full capacity—after engineers lowered it 130 feet (40 meters) for maintenance—the area experienced an unusual series of earthquakes. U.S. Geological Survey seismologists subsequently found a strong link between the quakes and the refilling of the reservoir.
The Oroville area was sparsely populated, so little damage was done. But earthquakes have also been connected to past hydropower projects in China, where dams are often located in densely populated and seismically active river basins. Engineers in China blame dams for at least 19 earthquakes over the past five decades, ranging from small tremors to one near Guangdong province's Xinfengjiang Dam in 1962 that registered magnitude 6.1 on the Richter scale—severe enough to topple houses.