Wilmington District Hydropower

Wilmington District Hydropower

John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, and is now operated by the Wilmington District.

Construction was authorized by the seventy-eight Congress on 22 December 1944, with work commencing in March 1947. Completion date was early 1953.

The primary functions of John H. Kerr Project are flood control and production of hydroelectric power. The Project also provides benefits such as wildlife resources, forest conservation, and public recreational uses. Besides the control of floods, the project provides other benefits downstream from the dam through the regulation of flows for water quality control and maintaining river levels for fish spawning. Twenty feet of storage is reserved for flood and is designed to control the largest flood on record.

Kerr Dam generates an average of 426,749,000 kilowatt hours per year, which is sold to local power companies for local consumption.  Since construction Kerr Dam has prevented over $385,638,000 in downstream flood damages.

At the beginning and early stages of construction, the project was called Buggs Island Lake. Buggs Island is the name of the Island immediately downstream from the dam and was named after Samuel Bugg, an 18th century pioneer. The name of the project was changed to John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir by the eighty-second Congress in 1951. John H. Kerr was a Congressman from North Carolina who was instrumental in Congress authorizing the construction. The site was selected for the strong solid granite foundation needed to support the heavy concrete and the availability of rock for construction. (For further information on John H. Kerr please click on the link in the upper left corner.)


The full potential of Philpott Dam was realized in 1953 with the completion of the powerhouse and the start-up of three generators having a combined output of 14,100 kilowatts. Today, Philpott’s electrical power enters a sophisticated grid system which distributes the power where needed to satisfy electrical needs equivalent to that of 1,600 homes. 

Powerhouse personnel control a delicate balance between the upstream and downstream sides of the 920 foot long, 220 foot high dam. Three distinct levels or layers of the lake are maintained. The lower layer of the lake, the inactive storage pool, must remain full at all times to provide the minimum water pressure necessary to operate the power plant, even in low-water, drought conditions. The middle layer has more flexibility and is constantly adjusted for normal operation of the generators and to regulate flow of the Smith River. Proper stream flow ensures a healthy downstream ecosystem and provides an adequate water supply to communities dependent on the river. The top layer of the lake area is normally empty and is reserved for the collection and holding of potential flood waters during periods of heavy rainfall. At the top of the flood pool, Philpott Dam is holding back enough water to increase the lake size by 1000 acres.

Without the dam and lake, flood waters would devastate communities along the river. Powerhouse personnel carefully control the release of the extra water in the flood pool through generation or by opening the dam’s sluice gates, making room for the next flood.