Category Archives: Hydropower


135 years and counting

By Jay Woods

Captain T.H. Handbury became the first Little Rock District Engineer in February 1881.
Captain T.H. Handbury became the first Little Rock District Engineer in February 1881.

Plans had been prepared for prosecuting the work, and the collection plant was in progress, when, on February 1, 1881, the charge of the work was by your order turned over to Captain Thomas H. Handbury…to take charge of “removing snags, etc., from the Arkansas River–improvement of Arkansas River between Fort Smith and Wichita, Kansas and at Pine Bluff, and the rivers of Saint Francis, White, L’Anguille, Fourche le Fève, Saline, and Black, Arkansas, and Current, Missouri and Arkansas,” from 1 February 1881 onwards. – excerpts from the Annual Chief of Engineers Report of 1881.  Thus began the Corps’ 135 year history in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Handbury assumed officer-in-charge responsibilities for a collection of Corps of Engineer waterway improvement projects in a wide geographical area.  The region stretched from Wichita, Kansas, to just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, and from the Ozark Mountains of Missouri south to the Louisiana border.  He also assumed responsibility for work along approximately 1,000 miles of the Arkansas River, and for projects on nine other rivers.

Over the next 50 years numerous projects were undertaken and world events transpired that shaped the Little Rock District for years to come.

Despite the importance of the commerce in the other river basins, the most important examination and survey work under Handbuy’s charge took place on the Arkansas River.  The commercial potential on the Arkansas dwarfed all the other rivers under his charge.

In 1883 the commander felt improvement on the Arkansas River west of Fort Smith, Arkansas should be discontinued.  Thus the district’s geographic area was greatly reduced to an area that is close to its current boundaries.

Near the end of the 1800s, as the district was preparing to begin work on the White River locks and dams, disaster struck.

Between 7 and 13 May 1898 one of the largest floods in Arkansas history devastated communities across the Little Rock District.  Whole families were lost.  Though nearly all streams in Arkansas were affected, the rampaging Arkansas River received the most publicity and, no doubt, did the most damage.  A quarter of residential Van Buren, Arkansas was under six to ten feet of water.  The strength of the current in what is now North Little Rock, Arkansas prevented steamboats from making headway against it.  It was now apparent that the channel of the Arkansas had to be controlled during high and low water.

The early 1900s saw little progress on the on the Arkansas River and conditions continued to deteriorate.

The disastrous drought of 1901 and early 1902 severely affected Arkansas River.  Abnormal weather reduced the normally shallow and meandering river to a “muddy sand clogged stream.”  The drop in depth exposed numerous snags and sandbars and reduced the channel to depths too shallow for navigation.  The drought financially ruined many in the district area, placed entire communities under care of charitable organizations and had a considerable effect on commerce.

In 1925 Congress took the first steps toward changing constraints within which it asked the Corps to work.

The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1925 did not free the Corps completely from the requirement that most corps waterway projects be primarily for navigation, but the act deemphasized it.  With this act Congress ordered the Corps and the Federal Power Commission to develop a list of all navigable rivers and streams where power development appeared practical.

In the 1927 Rivers and Harbors Act, Congress authorized the Corps to develop a unified multipurpose plan for each of the two hundred river basins.

Soon however, a series of events occurred that eventually led Congress to authorize the Corps to weigh more equitably all points of view.  By January 1927, when Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act, four days of unusually heavy and constant rain began swelling rivers in the entire Mississippi River drainage basin.

The 1927 flood’s was immensely import to the area which is now the Little Rock District.  Millions of acres were flooded forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.  The flood also claimed the lives of nearly 100 people and more than 25,000 animals.   Property damage from the Arkansas River overflow and breaches in the levee system exceeded $46 million.

Then came the great flood. It has been said half of Arkansas was flooded. Water was 3 feet deep in downtown North Little Rock.
Then came the great flood. It has been said half of Arkansas was flooded. Water was 3 feet deep in downtown North Little Rock.

The Overton Act ordered the Corps to construct reservoirs to control flooding in the drainage basins of tributaries of the Mississippi River.  As of July 1, 1937 the district was responsible for construction of 47 of the approximately 270 flood control projects authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1936.

By Sept. 1940 the district had begun simultaneous construction projects for four upstream flood control reservoirs:  Nimrod Dam and Reservoir, Blue Mountain Dam and Reservoir, Clearwater Dam and Reservoir and Norfork Dam and Reservoir.

To assist the war effort, the Little Rock District built more than 30 vital World War II airfields, including major facilities in Arkansas at Blytheville, Stuttgart and Newport and Barksdale Field in Louisiana.

The district oversaw construction of airfields, arsenals and posts in Louisiana and Arkansas.
The district oversaw construction of airfields, arsenals and posts in Louisiana and Arkansas.

As Congress authorized new military construction projects, Little Rock District continued to receive more work compared to other Corps districts.  This was partially because the geographic area within the Little Rock District’s military construction boundaries offered ideal sites for defense related facilities.

In April 1946, the district began construction on Bull Shoals Dam.  This project was authorized in 1941 but was not started until World War II ended.  It rapidly became the fifth largest concrete dam in the nation, extending nearly half a mile across the valley.  It took more than two million yards of concrete to construct.

As Korean Conflict-related construction lessened, the Little Rock District’s two biggest military construction projects were construction of the Little Rock Air Force Base, which started in 1953, and site selection and land acquisition for Nike-Hercules and Titan II missile sites in 1959.

The district resumed work before 1961 on long-delayed civil works projects including construction on Table Rock Dam and Reservoir.  After beginning construction on Table Rock, the district started another dam and reservoir project, Greers Ferry.

The district broke ground for the Beaver Dam project in October 1959, and work commenced in Nov. 1960.  Beaver Dam was completed in May 1965 when two hydroelectric generating units in the powerhouse went on-line.

Meanwhile, the district’s original mission to improve navigation on the Arkansas River had taken on a new importance.  Construction on 17 locks and dams had begun.  Twelve of the locks and dams would be built in Arkansas.  Creating a year-round waterway extending 445-miles westward from the Mississippi River to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  The $1.2 billion project was completed in Dec. 1970 and in June 1971, President Nixon traveled to Tulsa for the dedication.    Today, the district works to maintain a nine-foot navigation channel to help move commodities up and down the river.

Little Rock District’s civil works and military missions impact millions of people at home and across the globe.  The district’s $6.5 billion in public infrastructure provide reliable navigation, renewable electricity, flood risk reduction, clean drinking water and some of the best recreation opportunities in the nation.

None of this would be possible without the district’s employees both past and present.

The flowing evolution of water control

By Miles Brown

The laws of physics and fluid dynamics have not changed over the millenniums. Water still looks for the path of least resistance flowing from higher elevations toward sea level. But how engineers manage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer reservoirs across the Little Rock District continues to evolve with every major high-water event. One person who has seen that evolution first hand for more than 28 years is Janis Jones, a hydraulic engineer with the Little Rock District’s Reservoir Control Section. “When I started in the Little Rock District, we used dial-up modems to download water level data every four hours and that data was loaded into our system via very cumbersome “automated” processes,” recalls Jones. “Now data is collected in almost real time, processed, and loaded into our file systems with more modern network technology and truly automated processes which allows our engineers more time to focus on the most important task – the operation of our reservoirs.”



Every day, the Little Rock water control professionals manage 12 reservoirs from southern Missouri to southwest Arkansas ensuring the congressionally authorized purposes of each lake are maximized. All Corps lakes within the Little Rock District have one purpose in common – to reduce the risk of down-stream flooding. Some have hydropower requirements and others supply drinking water to thousands of Arkansans. Two lakes have minimum flow requirements, and there are provisions for recreation at most of the District’s lakes. With all of these interests vying for the water stored behind Corps dams, the engineers managing the releases have their hands full. The water control mission really reaches a fever pitch during high-water years. This year levels in all 12 Little Rock District reservoirs rose rapidly in the late spring and early summer as three waves of storms dumped record rains across the region in a matter of just a few weeks. The upper White River lakes experienced major rises due to the runoff, and crested at levels that represented 83 percent of the available system flood storage in mid-June.  Peak river levels in the downstream White River valley were greatly reduced as the runoff was stored in the lakes. Unfortunately this was only the most recent flood event in the White River basin. “In 2011, major flooding occurred on the White River and the problems were made worse by the very high levels on the Mississippi River,” said Jones. “The water we had to release from reservoirs upstream had nowhere to go at the confluence of the White and Mississippi rivers.” In the Little River system in southwest Arkansas, DeQueen Lake, which discharges into Millwood Lake, set a new pool of record this year cresting at 472.8 on June 3. In addition, Millwood Lake, which feeds the Little River, and eventually the Red River, set a new pool of record cresting June 14 at 282.9 feet. That is 24 feet above the top of its conservation pool. “This year, we held back as much water as possible at Millwood because the Red River was above flood stage for weeks. We worked with two sister Corps districts to coordinate our releases and minimize the risk of floods for communities along the Red River.” Reservoir control professionals have been managing water levels at District lakes for more than 60 years, but several of the flood events over the last quarter century have approached record levels.

Jan Jones - mid to early 90's
Jan Jones – mid to early 90’s


“Every high water event is different to manage as we implement the water control plans and use our engineering judgment to adjust operations at each of the projects to hold flood waters back and then release the stored water as channel capacity allows,” explained Jones. “The heavy rains across Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri created some of the highest flows we have experienced on the MKARNS (McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System),” said Jones. “We had not seen a flood event this late in the year in my 28 years.” Arkansas River flows peaked at more than 370,000 cubic feet per second and sustained high flows continued for almost three months because of the large volumes of flood storage being released from reservoirs in Oklahoma and the uncontrolled runoff in the river basin. The volume of water that flowed down the river during this historic flood event was the largest since the navigation channel was completed in 1971. One of the essential missions for the Corps is keeping key stakeholders and the public informed about lake levels, river flows and dam releases. To help emergency responders and community planners prepare for possible future flood events, the District Reservoir Control team members conduct what they like to call “Water Management 101” sessions. “We started Water Management 101 events back in 2008 just before one of the major flood events on the White River,” recounts Jones. “Now we conduct these events each year and try to visit all the major river communities across the District.” Now that Jan Jones is winding down her decades-long tenure as a key team member managing the water storage and flows of the District, she has taken a little time to look back at the years and the major high-water events. “My hope is that we have documented these historical events and lessons learned well enough so our experiences can be passed on to the less seasoned engineers just starting their careers in Reservoir Control,” said Jones. “It is cool to see the smart, young professionals eagerly soaking-up the knowledge. It is very rewarding to realize that they are eager, anxious to use the available cutting-edge technology, and more than capable to take over the reins and keep the mission of water control and protecting people, communities and our infrastructure on track.”