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Dam operators play essential role in public safety

Public Affairs
Published Nov. 13, 2013
View of Santa Fe Dam after storm event.

View of Santa Fe Dam after storm event.

Michael Moran is a dam operator at Santa Fe Dam and Reservoir, which is a flood risk management project constructed and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District.

Michael Moran is a dam operator at Santa Fe Dam and Reservoir, which is a flood risk management project constructed and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District.

LOS ANGELES — When thinking about federal employees who are “emergency essential,” firefighters, police and air traffic controllers often come to mind, but people seldom think of dam operators.  The work dam operators do each day helps keep people safe.  In times of heavy rain, it can save lives. 

Michael Moran is a dam operator at Santa Fe Dam and Reservoir, which is a flood risk management project constructed and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District.  Built in 1949, the project is located on the San Gabriel River about four miles downstream from the mouth of the San Gabriel Canyon, near Irwindale, Calif.  It is one of 13 dams in the District. 

A typical work day for Moran includes performing gate and generator operations, compiling reports for the Reservoir Operations Center, inspecting miles of river channel, and tackling various mechanical maintenance duties at a project that is directly upstream from the homes of millions of people.  

Relatively new to the Corps, Moran joined the District in February.  He said he likes working outdoors and knowing that his work makes a difference.

“Most people don’t realize Santa Fe Dam is a dam because the basin is almost always dry, but it was built to collect flood runoff from the uncontrolled drainage areas upstream, store it temporarily, and release it into the river at a rate that does not exceed the downstream channel capacity,” Moran said.

In fact, Santa Fe Dam has 16 six-foot wide by nine-foot high hydraulically operated slide gates that, combined, can release water at a rate of 41,000 cubic feet per second.  Since an Olympic-sized swimming pool holds about 88,000 cubic feet of water, those gates could drain the entire pool in two seconds.  While in “stand-by” position, one outlet gate is opened to six inches and the rest are closed, which allows water to trickle through during low flows or impound during high flows.

“Dam operators constantly keep in mind that flooding is the most common, costly and deadly natural disaster in the U.S. each year,” he said.  “It’s impossible to prevent floods entirely; however, Corps’ projects lessen the risk of flooding to homes and businesses, saving lives and millions of dollars in potential damages.”

According to Moran, during the initial stages of a flood event, Santa Fe Dam will release as much of the inflow as is physically possible.  This will minimize the amount of stored water and impact to structures located within the basin.  However, as the river channel downstream approaches its capacity, he or his fellow dam operators will begin to close the gates in the gated outlet passages.  Then, more water will be stored in the reservoir and held back from flooding downstream.

“The primary purpose of the dam is to reduce the risk of flood damage for the densely populated area between the dam and Whittier Narrows Reservoir,” Moran said.  “The operation of Santa Fe Dam is coordinated with the operation of other Corps’ dams in the Los Angeles County Drainage Area system.”  

He explained that once Santa Fe’s reservoir level reaches 456 feet, flood control releases will be initiated.

“When impounded water can be released safely, the flood pool will be drained as rapidly as possible, consistent with the achievement of downstream flood control,” Moran said.  “This is done to empty the flood control pool in preparation for the next flood.”

The work may not be highly visible, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Dam Operators like Moran perform an essential role in public safety at 654 dams across the nation.  The dams serve a variety of purposes besides flood damage reduction, like navigation, water supply, irrigation, hydropower, recreation, environmental enhancement and combinations thereof.