Sept. 16–DELAWARE — In a control room 90 feet above rushing water, Greg Feustel overlooks the lush parkland surrounding Delaware Dam.
As a resource manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he oversees the dam’s operation, a job that has taken on new focus amid hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Florida and elsewhere.
While central Ohio won’t likely be in the crosshairs of a tropical storm, the specter of severe flooding is ever-present. And the almost-70-year-old dam, with its miles of earthen embankments along Route 23 in northern Delaware County, is a visible reminder.
The Corps also manages the Alum Creek Dam, which supplies much of Columbus’ drinking water. But the Delaware Dam’s role is crucial in stabilizing water levels along the Olentangy and Scioto rivers, into Columbus and beyond.
“My job is to make critical calls about when to release water and when to hold back, and maintaining lake levels and downstream conditions to limit the amount of damage we do to property, and hopefully to life,” said Feustel, who, in addition to being the dam tender, monitors boating and recreation in the reservoir.
The work is overseen by teams of engineers, hydrologists, meteorologists and other experts who monitor water-level gauges daily as far south as Chillicothe and the Ohio River.
“It’s an awesome responsibility, but I know I have a lot of people on my team,” Feustel said.
A district office in Huntington, West Virginia, oversees 35 similar reservoirs and dams for flood control in five states.
The team will run models and forecast water-level stages for the rivers downstream.
“We will direct the Delaware Lake to reduce its outflow so that we can chop off the peaks” when there is a threat of damage to crops or neighborhoods, said James Schray, a water management specialist in the district office.
The daily hold-and-release decisions are similar to automated stoplights on highway entrance ramps that reduce the number of merging cars, limiting the “flood” of traffic.
“We are stopping the flow of water from our dams when there’s enough water in the river to cause a flood,” said Schray.
The challenge comes with protracted wet weather, often in late winter or spring, when the reservoir and rivers are so full that even a small release adds to flood conditions downstream.
That’s what happened during record flooding in January 2005.
Delaware Lake rose to 945.5 feet above sea level, 18 inches from the dam’s capacity and the height of the dam’s spillway. Overtopping poses damage to the gates or the earthen integrity of the reservoir.
“If one more storm had come we would have been required to open the gates,” said Schray. And that would have caused an estimated $4.7 million in damage to almost 2,900 homes and businesses downstream, many of them in Delaware.
Similar decisions were made in Houston with the release of water from swollen dams. It’s a delicate balance between adding to the floodwaters and preserving dams.
Delaware officials link the Olentangy River to the city’s identity. A flood in 1913 wiped out much of the downtown and led to modern flood controls.
“The Olentangy River is literally and figuratively the heart of the city. It impacts how the city has grown,” said city spokesman Lee Yoakum. “The dam has had an effect on what we can and can’t do at our busiest parks, and when we can and cannot draw water for our drinking supply.”
Inside the control room, a no-frills set of controls operates the massive gates to control water outflow. A panel behind a locked glass door holds toggle switches and knobs to activate the electric and hydraulic-powered gates. Digital readouts show the rate of flow — on this day a steady 40 cubic feet per second — through a 2 1/2-inch opening in one of the 6-foot-wide gates. With multiple gates, the dam can expel more than 100 times more.
While the public is allowed on tours, the Corps is sensitive to widespread knowledge of the dam’s operation and prohibits photographs inside. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, extensive background checks were required of those allowed inside, said Feustel.
The guardians of the dam know that while Hurricanes Harvey and Irma made the headlines, a major series of storms in Ohio could affect the lives of thousands here.
“We have our own issues as far as weather,” said Feustel. “Sometimes we get 10 inches of snow and the next day several inches of rain. That’s our hurricane.”
The recent flooding, he said, “is just a stark reminder of the importance of our job. I need to be vigilant. But I am confident in the integrity of my dam and of my team. We would be well-prepared.
“You have people’s life and property downstream that we are here to protect.”