When it was completed in 1942, Whitney Point Dam was the answer to what had been recurring disastrous floods for Binghamton, New York and other communities downstream of it.
In 1935, that year’s flooding was so devastating that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt toured the impacts throughout the Southern Tier of New York. That 1935 flood, and its impacts to Binghamton and other communities, was one of the major floods of the time that played a large role in the ultimate crafting and passing of the Flood Control Act of 1936.
The bill authorized the construction of Whitney Point Dam, as well as hundreds of other flood risk management works across the country.
Since its completion in 1942, the dam has prevented an estimated $726 million in flood damages. The dam itself cost less than $6 million to complete.
The dam is an earthfill structure 4,900 feet long rising 95 feet above the streambed, with a concrete spillway and a gated outlet in the left abutment. It controls a drainage area of 255 square miles, the entire watershed of the Otselic River, and 16 percent of the Chenango River watershed upstream from Binghamton.
The dam’s reservoir, Whitney Point Lake, has a storage capacity of 84,233 acre-feet, or roughly 28.2 billion gallons.
Head Dam Operator Fred Worman has been at the dam since 2006 and said some people may not realize how often the dam’s gates are operated to reduce risks downstream – noting that the gates have been operated for five high water events in 2017 already.
“None of them were really major events, but they were enough that we had to close the gates and close the roads,” Worman said. “Maybe not all of those, but some of those - if the gates weren’t operated -probably would have led to some people seeing wet basements or even wet first floors I would think.”
In addition to these less major high water events, some of the most major events when the dam reduced large amounts of damage downstream took place in 1976, 1979, 1984, 2005 and with Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.
A Dam with Multiple Missions
When originally completed in 1942, the sole function of the dam and its reservoir was flood risk management. While flood risk management remains the primary mission of the dam, it does support two additional missions now – recreation and wildlife management.
In the 1960’s, the idea was developed to manage the reservoir so that it could be a focal point for recreation, with boating, picnic areas along the water and other amenities.
Through a partnership with the Broome County Department of Recreation, Whitney Point Lake has been the focal point of the popular Dorchester Park for the past several decades. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains certain water levels when additional storage is not needed to reduce downstream flood risks and the park sees an estimated 115,000 visitors each year.
Even more recently, the water control plan for Whitney Point Lake was modified in 2009 to provide for provide flow augmentation releases for improving downstream aquatic resources during low flow conditions.
Celebrating 75 Years of Flood Risk Management
To commemorate the dam’s 75th anniversary, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, held an open house for the public, allowing them inside the normally closed gatehouse to learn more about the dam. Several dozen local community members took the unique opportunity to learn more about the dam and see the inside of its gatehouse.
Jim Poyer, a seasonal hire at Whitney Point Dam assisting with everything from routine maintenance to dam operations for the past ten years, spent much of the day in the gatehouse showing members of the public around and answering their questions.
“A lot of people were amazed that a structure that’s 75 years old can look this good still,” Poyer said. “A lot of people that walk the walking path always walk around this building, never knew what was inside, took the opportunity to see what is, what it does and how it affects communities.”
A brief ceremony was also held, featuring remarks from Baltimore District Commander Col. Ed Chamberlayne and Broome County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Matthew Gawors.
Earlier in the month, Rep. Claudia Tenney recognized the 75th anniversary of Whitney Point Dam in Congress, and a copy of those remarks were read aloud to the crowd as well.
Ensuring the Dam Continues to Reduce Risks into the Future
Among those in attendance was Tom Hurlbut, who worked at Whitney Point Dam from 1972 to 2006 – being the head dam operator since 1978.
He talked about the importance of maintenance in keeping a dam operating for as long as Whitney Point has been operating.
“It’s like a living entity, the dam,” Hurlbut said. “You build it, it needs its maintenance, it needs to have things done things done. It’s important that people at the project identify what’s going on.”
Specifically, he recalled handling a seepage issue that came to light after flooding in 1993. Seepage is not uncommon with earthen dams, but occasionally presents an issue that needs addressed. Working with engineers from Baltimore District, the seepage was addressed, including the building of an 80-feet deep cut-off wall along the embankment.
Crews at the dam identifying a potential issue before it becomes a problem is key for large dam’s like Whitney Point Dam.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam’s like Whitney Point Dam undergo regular monitoring and inspections, including quarterly inspections of working parts of the dam, annual embankment inspections and the thorough periodic inspections every five years that can include more than a dozen engineers and other experts from various specialties. The crew at the dam are also informally looking for potential issues on a day-to-day basis, like when crews noticed and reported the seepage issue during operations after flooding in 1993.
Another key to the success of dam’s like Whitney Point is the dedication of their personnel, according to Worman.
“It’s a job that requires somebody really dedicated to it,” Worman said. He noted that it’s common to monitor lake and river levels as well as the weather from home and even to have to come in to operate the gates in the middle of the night. “It takes somebody who enjoys their work but also someone who is willing to work hard. I enjoy this because I know that what we’re doing makes a difference and helps protect people.”