Hydro revival

Repairs begin at Gonzales dam


The large wooden gates are closed at the Gonzales hydroelectric dam. They hold back approximately 15 feet of water that spill into the turban pits that churn out an electrical current when in use. Now, the pits are mostly dry, except for large leaks that still pour water into the voids, though the steady stream is nothing that workers feel worried with.

It's a fascinating feeling, knowing that so much water is held back on one side of you and the sheer power that falls over the spillway in front of you and down the other side, a steep drop until reaching the river channel again. The old cranks and turbine house look like aqua catacombs, dripping and damp and held together by an aging brick and concrete skeleton.

Local proprietor Ken Morrow was on hand to scurry down the steep stairway to the waters edge to showcase the structure. He was brought on board by Thomas Brothers Hydro, who are the contractors working on the project. As he puts it, he was hired to be some of the necessary labor to back their engineering prowess.

He is joined by Robert Miller, who worked here in the city's electric department for over three decades. Miller knows just about everything associated with the dam, even the water level in the generator house during the Flood of 1998. He pointed to his forehead when asked how far it rose.

It's Miller's mind that motivated Hoke Thomas to bring him back out of retirement for a spell to help with the project. Thomas is a kind Georgia gentleman who owns the company doing the restoration of the dam, and he speaks in a proper Southern accent that you can tell just stepped out of a peach farm.

He also carries around an old pair of boots he purchased here in 1982. That's the last time the dam was rehabilitated — by his company no less — and Thomas was happy to dote on the boots' resilience as well as this quaint community.

The man knows a good pair of boots as well as he knows a good old dam. And this one, which was built in the 1920s, is the type of structure he specializes in. Thomas has repaired dams all over the world and has returned here to get this one up and running again after the Gonzales city council authorized it earlier this year.

The project has been in the works for a while, as city officials decided that something needed to be done, by either fixing it or throwing in the towel. Come to find out, tearing the dam down would have been much more expensive — and required environmental studies — so city council voted to fix it for far less money. The result will be an electrical-generating unit that can add back to the city's grid and pay for itself over time.

Council approved a $1.7 million certificate of obligation in April 2017 to fund repairs. In September, council heard that repairs to the dam would not exceed $986,498. Work was also authorized to shore up the shoreline around the dam, reconstruct its damaged foundation, and install new water intake pumps for the city's water supply at a cost of $642,352.

Morrow is impressed by the “green” technology at work in the dam, which he said was so far ahead of its time when built. He explained that they could have simply purchased new generators, but the output would hardly be noticeable to simply rebuilding the units. The technology has held up solidly over time, since the days of the Roman Empire, he said.

Thomas explained that the gear boxes — housed in heavy metal boxes and bathed in gear oil — will be hoisted out of the dam and sent to his Georgia facility for repairs. Plus, the generators will be re-wound. When they return next year, each generator will pump out approximately 300kw of power, which translates into lighting 1,000 homes or so.

Unfortunately, the dam requires a city electrical grid to feed into in order to work, so using it as a backup in case of a nuclear apocalypse won't work. But having just a bit of renewable energy to power up Gonzales should make even the nascent environmentalist happy.

As for Thomas' next project, he has a dam in North Carolina to fix before he calls it a career.