ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST – With the flip of a switch, a concrete gravity dam built during the Great Depression roared to new life Wednesday as storm water shot 30 feet from a massive jet-valve and plunged into the San Gabriel River below.
The deafening white-water display marked the completion of a $10.6 million upgrade of Morris Dam, originally built by the city of Pasadena through a citywide bond measure and dedicated in 1934 by former President Herbert Hoover.
Fitted with new penstocks, valves, automated technology and a concrete control house, the 245-feet high and 800-feet wide structure located off Highway 39 above Azusa will deliver an additional 1,500 acre-feet of storm water for the next three months, enough water for 3,000 families for one year.
Additional water for retail agencies and for replenishing spent underground aquifers will help Los Angeles County residents get through dry years, explained Sterling Klippel, senior civil engineer with the county Department of Public Works and one of several managers who supervised the three-year dam improvement project.
“If we didn’t have the upgrades, we would not be releasing any water,” Klippel said bluntly while standing atop of the mountain dam. “This is a critical year. Water supplies are tight. This project comes along just in the nick of time.”
The five new jet-flow-gate and fixed-cone valves — including the 72-inch valve opened for the first time Wednesday — enable dam operators to release additional water into the river, to go below the minimal reservoir levels, he explained. Using giant cranes, the county replaced old, steel valves that were prone to clogs from sediment with modern valves and also upgraded the electrical system.
The added capacity from Morris comes at a time when mountain runoff into the county’s 14 dams and reservoirs are at all-time lows, Klippel said. “In the 100 years of operating in the canyon, this is the lowest levels of our reservoirs,” he said.
The county used the project to tout its dams and reservoirs, both as ways to prevent residential flooding and to promote water recycling. Water managers from Torrance, the San Fernando Valley and the city of Los Angeles attended the re-dedication ceremony.
Just from Morris Dam, the county can replenish about 220,000 acre-feet of water a year — that’s equivalent to the amount used by a half-million families in Southern California, said Mark Pestrella, assistant director of the county Department of Public Works.
“Unlike other places, we aren’t taking our dams down. We are actually using them. They are very, very valuable to water resource management in this area,” Pestrella said.
The Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena is next up for restoration and sediment removal, Pestrella said. Community meetings will be held in September and October in conjunction with the environmental review process, said county spokesman Kerjon Lee. Construction could start in fall 2015, he said.
On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a $27 million upgrade to the Tujunga Spreading Grounds that will enhance groundwater recharge in the San Fernando Groundwater Basin.
While the county spoke of Morris Dam’s latest bells and whistles, members of the Morris family who attended the ceremony talked about the unique aspects of the dam engineered and supervised by Samuel B. Morris, who headed up the Pasadena Water Department from 1912 to 1934 and later, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Morris included a hinge at the base of the dam that allows the concrete structure to shimmy back and forth during normal seismic activity, said his son, Bob Morris, 98, of San Clemente.
“It allows the eastern portion to move independently of the western side,” said Morris, who actually worked on the north side of the reservoir for the U.S. Navy on the variable angle launcher. The long concrete slide was used to test torpedoes for angle of entry into water. “If they were to skip or sink, that would not be good,” he said.
Pestrella reminded the audience of the time county dam operators found ordnance at the bottom of San Gabriel and Morris dams during past drainage projects in the 1980s and 1990s. “There’s a lot of folklore about that,” he said.
Samuel Morris campaigned for the Pasadena ballot measure that passed in 1929 with 75 percent of the vote and paid for construction of the dam. Pasadena built a pipeline from the dam to the city — about 10 miles — and used it from 1934 to 1941, said Tim Brick, Pasadena historian and managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, a nonprofit group advocating restoration of the Arroyo, which is a tributary to the Los Angeles River.
“Samuel B. Morris was a giant. He led the Pasadena Water Department. He was a great visionary for water resources planning and he later played a key role in the formation of the Metropolitan Water District,” said Brick, a former chairman of the MWD board.
Later, Pasadena sold the dam to Metropolitan. In 1995 the county bought Morris Dam for $1. Today, the county hopes to use it for flood control and water storage for another 80 years.
“To me, it is part of our family’s legacy of dedication to public service, things that are for the public good,” said Mike Morris, 68, the grandson of Samuel B. Morris.