Officials hope to drain reservoir as water levels climb


Water levels are climbing at Patoka Lake Reservoir, and local officials are collaborating in hopes to drain excess water from the reservoir before spring rains unleash a potentially devastating wall of water on farms and businesses.

Months of excessive rain and snow have filled the reservoir to 77 percent of its capacity.

Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide explained Wednesday that water has been held to this point to prevent flooding downstream. Now, the City of Jasper, the Louisville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dubois County officials, area farmers, other municipalities and the local soil and water district are all working together to alleviate the situation before it becomes a major concern. Senators and other representatives have also been involved.

“We are requesting that we release more water from the reservoir to try to get it down,” said Jamie Blanton, hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. “We’re entering the wettest part of the season, really.”

The reservoir is managed by the Corps of Engineers, and the local entities listed above have reached out to the corps’ Louisville office and requested a temporary deviation from the standard water discharge requirements, which would route more water than normally allowed out of the reservoir. (Reservoirs have a water control manual that is approved by Congress, and the Corps of Engineers is seeking a deviation to allow them to operate differently than the book decrees).

If nothing changes and moisture continues to saturate the area, Vonderheide said the future becomes murky.

“We had that experience back in 2011,” Vonderheide said. “Rains caused it to go over the spillway. And if there’d be any failures up there at the spillway or dam, you can’t even define what could possibly happen. It’d be a wall of water coming down this way.”

Added Blanton: “If we were to get a lot more rain, and we are not able to release, it is possible that we would have another spillway event like in 2011. But we still have quite a bit of runoff available in the lake. And so it would take a lot for that to happen. I don’t want people to worry that it’s coming soon, because right now, as we stand, we do not foresee that happening.”

Blanton said last year was one of the wettest years on record, and 2019 has been extremely wet as well.

“We cannot release water if downstream areas are flooding,” she said. “So, we’ve had to hold back a lot of water, which has resulted in (the reservoir capacity) being 77 percent utilized as of today.”

The Corps of Engineers is requesting the deviation last between now and crop season, but Blanton explained the request still has to jump through a lot of “internal hurdles” before it is approved. Before making the changes, the Corps will need to receive approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ district office and later the group’s Cincinnati division office. She hopes that could be as soon as two weeks.

Vonderheide spoke highly of the collaboration between the involved parties and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Every conversation we’ve had, it shows a collaborative spirit to do what we can to avoid any kind of major damages in crops or properties,” he said.

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