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New dam to control Brazos' water level

Nov. 17, 2005

by TIFFANIE BLACKMON and KATE MCCLENDON, staff writer and assistant city editor

Waco City Council members voted Tuesday night to approve the construction of a new Brazos River dam costing nearly $16 million.

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Jessie Solomon | Lariat staff
The Baylor Marina off University Parks Drive will be closed in January and February to accommodate the water loss associated with the new Brazos River dam. The dam will help sustain the river's water level year-round.

"We have been planning and laying out a design to help with numerous problems at Lake Brazos, like the dam malfunctioning in addition to the fact that it is more than 30 years old," said Charles Ferguson, a Waco water utilities program administrator.

Since City Council members approved project planning for the Lake Brazos Dam in 2002, design guidelines and goals were set for the dam building.

"This project has been a top priority for the City Council members for the river corridor," said Bill Falco, city of Waco planning director. "The next phase of constructing the dam will be the fruition of a project the city has been discussing for years."

Though Ferguson said the new dam will ensure a consistent water level and help aesthetics in the downtown area, many businesses, including the Baylor Marina, will be affected during construction.

During January and February, the first two months of building, the water level of the river will be lowered, said city of Waco Utilities Director Ricky Garrett. Because of the lower level, boats will not be able to sail, but the water will remain at a consistent level once it's raised again.

"In the long term, (the dam) will be good because we won't have the water loss on the river twice a year for maintenance," said Ben Robert, assistant coordinator of facilities and maintenance at Baylor. "We will be closed for two months -- January and February -- when typically that only happens during one week in summer. Once the new dam's installed, we won't have any problem."

According to Waco Water Utility Services, because of the amount of activity and the central location of the Lake Brazos in downtown Waco, it was necessary to ensure constant levels of water.

"(The new dam) will not alter the functionality of other structures or nearby waters connected to Lake Brazos," Ferguson said.

Three major goals have been set for the dam project in its design phase, according to water services. Reducing the cost of the project without compromising the new dam's reliability, maintaining the water level's consistency and completing the new structure while upholding its aesthetic qualities were all key issues for planning the future of the Lake Brazos Dam.

Archer Western Contractors Ltd., a general contracting, construction management and design firm based in Illinois, was selected by council members to complete the dam's restructure.

Ferguson said the contracting company would have about 600 construction days to complete the project, which should span 18 to 21 months.

"The plan is to replace the existing structure with a new one," Ferguson said.

"The new structure will be a concrete fixed weir, or a labyrinth weir, that will cross the river in a zigzag pattern."

The current Lake Brazos Dam, a concrete channel dam, is a few hundred yards from the LaSalle Avenue Bridge. It was built 40 years ago when city administration decided a dam would widen the Brazos River and help stabilize its water levels.

The Lake Brazos Dam was completed in 1970 and had two drum gates.

Even with modifications to the structure over time, its functionality and reliability was questionable.

In 1997, a malfunction of one of the gates of the dam at Lake Brazos caused low water levels in the downtown body of water.

Inappropriate materials used for the dam's construction resulted in erosion problems, which led to issues of leakages and pile-ups of debris, both factors in the dam's malfunctioning.

Water Utility Services documented the expensive modification of the dam in 1985. This modification included the attachment of hydraulic cylinders to the underside of the gates to provide stable control for the water's level maintenance.

In 1991, city officials reported annual maintenance costs for the Lake Brazos Dam to range from $250,000 to $300,000.

Ferguson said he thinks the new dam will end previous problems.

"It's something we've talked about for a number of years in Waco," Ferguson said. "It's something we've wanted to see happen for a long time."