Wednesday, the Dubois County Commissioners held an emergency meeting with representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the discharge at the Patoka Lake Reservoir Dam.
With the rain the area has had so far this year, the reservoir water level is at 546.43 feet — about 88 percent capacity — which is only a couple inches below the levels the reservoir hit in May of 2011 when the water flooded through the spillway at an unprecedented rate
breached the dam — it was at about 125 percent capacity then.
The county, cities of Huntingburg and Jasper, the Patoka River Conservancy, Dubois County Soil and Water, and area farmers have been petitioning the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the discharge to bring the lake levels down in anticipation of the wet spring.
To change the amount of water that is released requires approval from Congress since water control reservoirs are under its jurisdiction. This has slowed the process of getting an agreement in place to allow for the deviation.
In March, an agreement was made regarding a deviation of the discharge operational parameters to allow the gauge in Jasper to hit up to 14 feet in depth. Unfortunately, the ability to control that level is more difficult than it appears, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Water released from the reservoir takes up to 24 hours to reach Jasper and the Army Corps of Engineers has to anticipate the impact of any rain that could be forecast. With more than 13 inches having fallen since the March agreement, it’s been problematic to forecast when to release water and when to hold back.
Local officials were concerned about how the Corps controls the water with discharge rates rising and falling apparently arbitrarily while the water levels at the Jasper gauge have remained below 14 feet — today the gauge reads 13.31 feet. Adam Crowley with the Louisville District of the Army Corps of Engineers indicated the Corps did not want to exceed the 14 foot level at the Jasper gauge and therefore had been conservative in the discharge from the lake.
During the meeting, Crowley said that with the current weather forecast, they are not expecting a repeat of the widespread flooding that occurred in 2011.
“We have pushed water at the higher levels when we could, but when we get rain every few days, it makes it really difficult,” Crowley said during the meeting. “Because we have to reduce the flow for the incoming rain.”
Crowley assured the group that Corps is watching the water levels very closely.
That agreement for the discharge ended Tuesday but officials agreed to extend the deviation to allow the river level to meet or exceed 14 feet at the Jasper gauge. The new agreement will be go into effect Wednesday and last until May 15.
Dubois County Emergency Services Director Tammy Humbert told those in attendance that in the future, the requests to deviate from the planned discharge should be made well in advance of the rainy season. “We need to start this process before January, February, March,” she said.
Besides the potential for flooding, the discharge also allows for more water to be drained in the future as the levels lower.
“We’ve got a lake that is really full and we need to get a plan together to get the lake down to a proper level,” County Engineer Brent Wendholt said. “For us, it’s about the roads but for the farmers, it’s about their land.”