News Stories

Behind the Scenes of SAW Water Management

Published Aug. 15, 2017

   Managing the flow of water is complex.  Water managers take into account weather patterns, lake and river levels, and a host of other concerns and issues.  But the decisions that they make and the rules that they must follow can have big impacts in water basins in North Carolina and parts of southern Virginia.    

   The Wilmington District’s Water Management team operates its multi-purpose projects at John H. Kerr, B. Everett Jordan, Falls, W. Kerr Scott and Philpott Dams and Reservoirs. More importantly, they help reduce risk to public health and safety, life, and property during flood events.       

  Water Management Chief and civil engineer Michael Anthony “Tony” Young said that water management, like water flow itself, is always changing.  The challenge is to maintain balance.    

   “The 24-7, real-time aspect of water management ensures that no two days are ever the same,” he said.  “I don't think that anyone in the Corps has a more important or more demanding job than water managers do.  Our water management decisions are often contentious, as basin stakeholders and the general public do not always agree with or understand the engineering and decision-making involved, and the Corps’ responsibility to consider overall basin interests may not satisfy everyone's individual interests.” 

   Each of the Wilmington District’s five dams and reservoirs operate independently.  Civil engineer Daniel Emerson, who operates Jordan Dam’s water flows, said they also operate differently.     

   “If a dam is set in or near a municipality great care must be made when operating it,” he said.  “Many lives downstream are exposed to possible high outflows. If the project is rural and the population is sparse downstream, dam operations can be made sooner and at a higher volume with careful consideration for downstream populations.”

   There are numerous and varied stakeholders and interests downstream of Wilmington District dams who have their own sets of concerns and needs. For example, during certain times of the year fish populations may need special water flows in order to reproduce, yet flooding or drought considerations may not allow for that. 

   “During drier times releases are made from designated storage in our projects to maintain and supplement downstream flows, often increasing the amount of water in the river substantially above what would otherwise be occurring naturally,” Young said.  “This water is intended to maintain downstream water quality, provide for aquatic habitat, and, very importantly, provide additional water for downstream communities and industries.  In some cases, this water does double-duty by generating power as it is released for those other downstream purposes.”  

   In addition, Young said some cities own dedicated water supply storage in Wilmington District reservoirs and withdraw that water directly from the reservoir for their use.  One thing that water managers acknowledge that guides them through decision making is listening to the needs of stakeholders and others downstream.

   “Each stakeholder has a specific need, and we have to weigh those needs with how we operate the water flows,” said civil engineer Ashley Hatchell who manages water flows at John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir.  “For the most part, our stakeholders understand our operating procedures, and respect the multipurpose nature of our projects."

   What makes water management challenging at times is the weather.  Water managers over the years have developed a knack for reading some weather patterns and knowing intuitively when to release water or hold it back.  But they follow steadfast rules to reduce downstream flood risk.  

   “Water managers do not operate projects based on forecasts due to the inherent uncertainty of forecasts and the unpredictability of weather,” Young explained.  “Flood storage in our projects is designed to handle storm events by temporarily storing floodwaters and then, after downstream river conditions have improved, releasing those stored floodwaters at non-damaging or less-damaging rates.  Water releases from our projects can take days to reach downstream communities.” 

   Young said that if a lot of water was released days in advance of a storm to make room for incoming floodwaters based on a forecast that later changed, releases could potentially make downstream flooding worse if that forecast rain instead fell in those downstream areas already being affected by our releases. 

   “Were that to happen, the flood risk management purpose of our projects would not have been met.”

   Understanding the static and dynamic properties of water intrigues the water managers.  Emerson said he looks at water management philosophically. 

   “Edging towards philosophy, 75 percent of the world's major cities live near a coastline, and nearly 80 percent of the world's population lives near large water bodies. Our human bodies are nearly 75 percent water. Our survival depends on fresh, clean water. As a water manager, I maintain a very important balance for people and land above our projects, as well as below our projects. So, the operation of our dams is key to maintain a good balance for the entire basin, in terms of water use and safety, that being flood damage reduction.