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High and dry


Tuesday's dam failure on the Oklahoma River is the third in a year.

Clifton Adcock July 20th, 2012

As the sun rose over Oklahoma City on the morning of July 17, a strange sight greeted those walking or commuting near the western basin of the Oklahoma River.

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The river was not there.

Sometime overnight, one of the six 65,000-pound gates on the Brum Dam, located just west of S. Walker Avenue, fell. Subsequently, almost all of the water in the basin flowed downstream.

Old tires, a strangely upright shopping cart and other debris sat in the semi-dry riverbed that had been reduced to its former smaller, natural size. Birds of all sorts picked through the mud, searching for food, while city crews worked with heavy machinery to restore the submerged gate.

The western basin, which extends from around Walker to another low-water dam near S. May Avenue, is not as utilized as the eastern basin, which is home to much of the kayaking and rowing venues. The western basin does house the Public Works boats as well as other watercraft, said Public Works Director Eric Wenger. Oklahoma River cruise boats continued to operate from Regatta Park without interruption.

The giant gate fell after the failure of a seal within one of the hydraulic pistons controlling it, according to Wenger. He said that the alert system — which is supposed to instantly and automatically inform city workers and relevant officials of a failure — did not function when the failure occurred. Because the alert was not issued, the problem wasn’t discovered until the next morning, after much of the water had been drained.

This marks the third such dam failure in the past year, Wenger said. The first one occurred last summer and ended up beaching some boats, while the second occurred about a month ago but was patched by city crews before the water could drain from the basin.

credit: Clifton Adcock

The dams are inspected annually by a private structural engineering firm. The most recent reports show that the dams are in relatively good condition with only minor repairs needed.

“This is one of those that’s an unforeseen failure that couldn’t be planned for or avoided,” Wenger said.

At around 12 years old, the dams were part of the original MAPS projects and allowed the once nearly dry river to fill to levels where boating activities could take place.

When the seal failed, Wenger said, some of the gate’s hydraulic oil leaked into the river. Although the oil that came out is environmentally safe, city crews also cleaned the spill, said Wenger.

He said it’s not likely the city will request a release from Canton Lake to refill the basin after the gate has been repaired, since the water being stored behind S. May Avenue dam, which was sealed after the gate failure, should be enough to refill it.

City crews work on the fallen gate.
credit: Clifton Adcock

Because the bottom of the river is mud, not rock or concrete, it’s not likely any damage occurred to any boats, Wenger said, and the cost to fix the gate should be less than $10,000.

 
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