Exclusive: Duck River Reservoir level to be lowered for inspection of dam

The Duck River Reservoir, already down slightly due to lack of rain, will be lowered further to allow inspection of the face of the dam, which has been leaking since the reservoir filled during the 2015 Christmas flood. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman Power Board, which oversees the Duck River Reservoir, is preparing to lower the water level–which is already down slightly due to a recent lack of rain–to allow inspection of the face of the dam for leaking issues which began when the reservoir filled during the Christmas 2015 flood. After lowering, which will begin in the next few weeks, the water level will remain down through the winter, and will restrict access to the reservoir by boat until the spring of 2020. Officials originally decided to close the reservoir completely, but after a Tuesday meeting of the Duck River Reservoir Advisory Committee, now say that the boat ramps will be closed. Only bank fishing will be allowed.

The 2015 Christmas flood put the dam to its first major test of strength, and unfortunately, it did not fare so well.

“At that time,” according to papers filed by Cullman City Attorney Roy Williams as part of a lawsuit against the dam’s construction company and design engineers over the leakage, “a far greater than anticipated flow of water from the reservoir into and through the concrete portion of the dam was first observed (‘Excessive leakage’).  Much of the excessive leakage flows into and through the gallery.”

The gallery is an internal access thoroughfare that allows inspections and repairs to be made inside the dam.  It was later found that water had risen high enough inside the dam to contact and damage electrical wiring, leading to a shutdown of the electronics that control the dam’s gates and valves.

In a message to The Tribune late Tuesday, city officials stated that water release valves “can currently be operated, but only by using a temporary generator.  After soliciting bids, the Board has awarded a contract for remediation of the dam’s electrical systems and some equipment components. A Notice to Proceed was issued on September 30, and the work is supposed to be completed within 180 days. Claims for costs associated with this work have been asserted in the Board’s pending litigation on against the original contractor, their performance bond surety, and the original engineer.”


In July 2017, Williams, on behalf of the Utilities Board of the City of Cullman, filed suit against CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc., ASI Constructors, Inc. and Western Surety Company for deficiencies discovered in the Duck River Dam.  CH2M Hill designed the dam, and ASI built it; Western Surety issued ASI’s required performance bond, guaranteeing the successful completion of the project.

ASI has asserted, and continues to hold, that the leakage was due to deficiencies in CH2M’s design.  CH2M, in response, defended its design and contended that the problem was with ASI’s construction.  The two entities have continually passed blame for more than a year.

Whoever is at fault, the fact remains that Duck River Dam has a problem.  Cullman Economic Development Director Dale Greer, who briefed the media on the suit in 2017, offered assurance at that time that the dam was in no imminent danger of catastrophic failure; two independent engineering firms had inspected the structure and agreed that the dam was safe. 

Greer reiterated that assurance Tuesday, telling The Tribune, “The dam structure remains safe.”

Even though safe from collapse, the dam, according to litigation paperwork, “cannot be operated or used as intended, and continues to require extensive and expensive monitoring, investigation, and maintenance that exceeds any routine upkeep contemplated by CH2M’s design documents and the ASI Construction Contract (prepared by CH2M).  Because the Duck River Dam cannot be operated and used as intended, the reservoir itself cannot be used as intended.”

The fix may be as simple as extra waterproof coating on the face of the dam, or sealant in the joints between structural components.  At one point ,ASI was poised to attempt those measures, when it suddenly pulled out of the project.  After that, ASI Constructors sold all of its equipment and assets, then declared that it is no longer able to continue work on the project.  Western Surety wrote to the Cullman Utilities Board, according to the litigation paperwork, that “as far as Western Surety was concerned, ‘ASI no longer exists.’”

ASI Constructors, Inc., however, sold all its assets to a company named ASI Construction, LLC headquartered in the same city (Pueblo West, Colorado).  Web searches for either name lead to the same website, on which both names occur.

Western Surety, for its part, declared that the bond it issued did not include corrective work to the dam, therefore it had no liability in the matter.

As the two companies and bond issuer will not agree on who is responsible for the problem, the City of Cullman hopes that the suit will help sort out who needs to do what.

The Cullman Economic Development Agency issued the following statement:

Lowering of Duck River Reservoir water level

October 15, 2019

Beginning this month, the Duck River Reservoir will be lowered an estimated 20 feet (or more) below full pool, and as a result, the reservoir will be closed to public access in the next few weeks according to the Cullman Utilities Board. The plan is to maintain the reservoir at substantially lowered levels throughout the winter months. Because none of the boat ramps will be safe for launching and the drawdown creates the potential for boats to strike submerged objects, the Utilities Board felt the safest alternative was to close the lake to the public.

The drawdown is being done in connection with current conditions and planned work at the dam’s spillway, after consultations with (professional) engineers. “We apologize for any inconvenience and will aggressively work through this to allow public access as soon as possible,” the statement from the Utilities Board reads.

For more information contact Mike Manning at Cullman Power Board 256-734-2343.

The Utilities Board will be responsible for costs associated with this project, but City officials maintain that “Some of (the) costs and the costs of some repairs may be recoverable in the pending litigation.”

Fish population safe

In response to questions about the possible impact of the project on fish in the lake, Cullman officials told The Tribune, “There should be no (effects) to the fish population in the reservoir.  Reservoir staff will continue to coordinate the lowering of the reservoir on an ongoing basis with ADCNR (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources).  The reservoir level will be reduced slowly and closely monitored throughout the process.”

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W.C. Mann