Hydroelectric plant leader calls for better management of reservoirs amid high water levels

photo by: Chris Conde

Bowersock Dam President Sarah Hill-Nelson describes various aspects of dam operations to U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins on Friday, June 7, 2019.

Sarah Hill-Nelson stood alongside the Kansas River dam in Lawrence on Friday, raising her voice over the roar of the fast-rushing Kaw. For weeks, the turbines of the hydroelectric power plant her family runs have sat motionless.

“On a really good day we would see the flashboards, but there is way too much water right now,” Hill-Nelson said.

Because of the high volume of water, Hill-Nelson said the turbines of the Bowersock Mills & Power Company had to be turned off in mid-May and could continue to sit dormant for weeks to come.

On Friday, Hill-Nelson, Bowersock’s president, provided a tour of the hydroelectric plant to Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins and shared her concerns about river flow management. In periods of both flooding and drought, Hill-Nelson said she thinks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could better manage the release of water from reservoirs and protect those along the Kansas River corridor.

photo by: Chris Conde

Bowersock Dam President Sarah Hill-Nelson describes various aspects of dam operations to U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins on Friday, June 7, 2019.

Earl Lewis, acting director of the Kansas Water Office, was also on Friday’s tour. Lewis told Watkins that the rules the Corps of Engineers uses are antiquated and risk averse and the process is not designed to be responsive. The Corps of Engineers uses a manual to dictate reservoir releases, which Hill-Nelson and Lewis would like to see updated and made more flexible.

“Having this much water is going to challenge us on every aspect of water management,” Lewis later told the Journal-World. “But I think as we’re talking here today, the things we can control, really, are the reservoirs and how they’re operated.”

Lewis said the focus is looking at the rules used to manage floodwaters and whether they can be improved to allow for better responsiveness. For instance, he said there could be ways to release water earlier in some instances or hold water a little longer in some places, but that the rules don’t necessarily allow for that.

Apart from high water levels in the Kansas River and at Clinton Lake, there is flooding elsewhere in the region. The Kansas National Guard has been hauling water to Lakeside Village, where water well pumps are currently submerged because of flooding at Perry Lake, the Journal-World has reported.

James Lowe, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs specialist, told the Journal-World via phone that there can be deviations from the manual, but that the manual is followed about 99 percent of the time. Lowe said the water must be managed as a system that also takes into account 50 levees along the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis. For instance, he said that holding water in the Kansas River reservoirs in mid-March instead of doing releases helped protect those areas.

“More of those levees would have overtopped and breached had we been releasing during that time,” Lowe said.

The tour of Bowersock Mills & Power Company included a walk through Bowersock’s silent powerhouse, where massive turbines would typically be humming as they add power to the electric grid. After the tour, when asked about Hill-Nelson’s concerns, Watkins told the Journal-World that it is a complex set of problems with a lot of stakeholders, and that he is still in a fact-finding phase. Watkins, who has worked in the engineering field, said he hopes to use his background to help create solutions for everybody.

“What we’re doing is establishing good working relationships with the stakeholders so that we can understand as a congressional team where everybody’s problems are and where they think the solutions might lie,” Watkins said.

photo by: Chris Conde

U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins explores a device known as a Woodward Governor, which controls the flow of water through the electrical turbines on Friday, June 7, 2019, at the Bowersock Dam. Bowersock Dam President Sarah Hill-Nelson is at right.

photo by: Chris Conde

U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins examines the electrical switchboard on Friday, June 7, 2019, during a tour of the Bowersock Dam. At right is Bowersock Dam President Sarah Hill-Nelson.

photo by: Chris Conde

Bowersock Dam President Sarah Hill-Nelson explains the area watershed tables to U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins on Friday, June 7, 2019.


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