Owsley Fork dam project a step closer to 2022 goal

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Berea city officials recently announced a decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowing Berea Municipal Utilities to complete the design of the Owsley Fork dam renovation and expansion.

Developing a larger water supply to serve the growing needs of the city of Berea has been the goal of local planners dating back to the 1980s, when Berea College Water Utility owned Berea's water supply. Now, officials say Berea Municipal Utilities and the city of Berea are one critical step closer to achieving that goal after a recent decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The federal agency recently granted permission to complete the design of the Owsley Fork dam project, which would increase the reservoir's water supply by 350 million gallons, and meet the city's water needs through 2050, say city officials.

"After about two and a half years of working with the Army Corps of Engineers, Berea Municipal Utilities (BMU) has finally received the green light to continue with the design of the Owsley Fork dam restoration and also additional impoundment of water. If federal monies stay on track, it's scheduled for 2022 [completion]," reported Berea City Administrator Randy Stone during a recent meeting of the Berea City Council. BMU also got the go-ahead to seek needed permits.

The proposed design includes raising the current dam wall by 6.3 feet while also shoring up the structure to meet federal safety standards. The design will have taken 18 months, followed by a projected construction time of another 18 months. When it is complete, the storage capacity of the reservoir will increase from 650 million gallons to one billion gallons, according to Berea Municipal Utilities Director Kevin Howard. Additionally, customers in the service area will be encouraged and educated on ways to conserve water in the future.

"This, in conjunction with water conservation measures by our customers, will ensure an adequate source of drinking water to meet the future residential and industrial growth of Berea and the surrounding community," Howard said. "This project benefits all of Berea due to the fact Owsley Fork Reservoir is the primary water source for all Berea Municipal and Southern Madison Water District customers as well as several customers of Garrard County Water Association. This is great news for the nearly 30,000 customers that depend on Owsley Fork as their primary water source."

Both Howard and Stone praised Bell Engineering and Schnabel Engineering for their contributions in guiding Berea Municipal Utilities through the Army Corps of Engineers rigorous review process, while Howard added that a determination to stay the course ultimately paid off.

"At times, the hurdles seemed daunting," Howard said. "However, the city administration kept the vision of looking forward to the future and were persistent in pushing this project and keeping it at the top of our priorities. Countless hours have been spent in environmental impact studies, planning, design meetings, and procuring available funds to make sure this project has gotten to this point."

Officials said the effort to find land to impound more water has been ongoing since the city first purchased Berea College Utilities in 2005. Regulatory agencies initially recommended Berea pursue other alternatives, including buying water from the City of Richmond, recycling water, or building a $14 million pipeline to the Kentucky River. Richmond subsequently announced it would not be selling its water, regulations for using recycled water for drinking are not yet in place in Kentucky, and procuring water from the Kentucky River would adversely affect the taste of Berea's drinking water, officials said.

Instead, the city pursued the Owsley Fork project, estimated to cost $12 million, and which ensures Berea will maintain its high quality of drinking water.

The project was also helped along by years of property development below the Owsley Fork dam, which changed the facility's safety status. Because of property development, the federal government designated Owsley Fork as a high hazard dam in 2013, requiring significant improvements for the dam, which then opened the door for raising the dam wall.

Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley complimented the work of Howard and Stone, citing the impact of their efforts on the Owsley Fork dam project, which in turn will greatly impact Berea's future.

"When complete, this project will enhance our water supply by 50 percent, which should secure our water supply well into the foreseeable future," said Fraley. "This is a big deal, and I just want to make sure people understand how important this is to our city."

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