Despite the threat from Tropical Storm Chantal, more than 30 residents from Ponce, Puerto Rico and surrounding areas attended a meeting July 9 to learn more about Jacksonville District’s Portugués Dam, which is nearing completion after several years of design and construction. Portugués Dam is the last component of the Portugués and Bucaná Rivers Flood Control Project, which includes the construction of two dams (Cerrillos and Portugués) and their associated channels.
The meeting was billed as a briefing on the Operational Guidance and Water Control Plan for the dam. The plan provides the operational guidance and tools necessary to operate the new dam responsibly and consistently with the project purposes, for the benefit of Ponce and the citizens of Puerto Rico. However, for many people it was an opportunity to ask questions of those who’ve been overseeing the construction of the 220-foot, roller-compacted concrete (RCC) structure spanning the Portugués River northwest of Ponce.
“The meeting was very successful,” said Capt. Juan Cordon, deputy commander for the Antilles. “Citizens were very impressed by the benefits this project will bring to the city of Ponce. They had the opportunity to hear the plan and ask questions.”
Community members asked what water level would be maintained upstream, and were told that the goal is to maintain an optimum elevation of 439.8 feet Mean Sea Level (MSL) year-round. In preparation for an impending storm or rainfall event, it is expected it would take less than one week to lower the level, if needed, based on conditions. An Emergency Action Plan is currently under development and will be made available to emergency responders once finalized.
A dam along the Portugués River has been in the works since the 1970s, when the Portugués and Bucaná Rivers Flood Control Project was initially authorized by Congress. In 1992, Jacksonville District completed construction on Cerrillos Dam, northeast of Ponce on the Bucaná River. That structure provides flood control, recreation and water supply benefits.
Cerrillos Dam and other improvements to river channels are credited with reducing damages from Hurricane Georges, which struck the island in 1998, by $100 million. Portugués Dam represents the final piece of the project.
“Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year,” said Luis Alejandro, hydraulic engineer, water management section. “The operational testing and monitoring phase will last approximately one year before we transfer the project to Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the local sponsor for the project.”
“The meeting was well received by the participants,” said Alberto Gonzalez, project manager. “Citizens expressed a lot of interest in visiting the site. We will keep the public informed on the completion of the dam, and future transfer of operations to the commonwealth.”
“To me it was pleasing to see the interest of the public in attendance, especially the community in close vicinity of the job. They immediately set aside a date to visit the jobsite,” said Pablo Vázquez Ruiz, resident engineer.
The project has been challenging, due to unique geological issues at the site. The Corps attempted to begin construction in the early 2000s, but higher than anticipated costs on a thin-arch design for the dam sent engineers back to the drawing board. After a number of years, a thick-arch, RCC design emerged and construction began in 2008.
The Corps has used the project as an educational tool for its “Dam Safety University” program. That program is intended to improve the knowledge of dam safety practices of new engineers as experienced engineers that have worked on other Corps dams retire or near retirement.
However, on this night, despite the predictions for bad weather, the storm remained at bay, and people were very pleased with the information they received.
“Elected representatives praised the work of the Corps,” said Cordon. “We were able to inform the public on our proposed operations, and they were pleased with what they heard.”