Elephant Butte Dam turns 100 years old

Rare inside look shows graceful aging

elephant-butte-lake

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (KRQE) – Jesse Higgins operates the power plant and serves as an electrician at the century-old Elephant Butte Dam in central New Mexico.

“It is an amazing feeling to just think about 100 years and this place is still just rocking and rolling,” Higgins mused.

Higgins joined about 100 dignitaries and fellow Bureau of Reclamation staffers this week to celebrate the dam’s centennial. Even New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez helped dedicate the new plaque commemorating the facility’s long service.

When the 306 foot-tall dam was completed in 1916, it had taken five years of construction by more than 3,000 workers and was the largest concrete structure on earth.

The dam gets lots of inspections every year, including from a team that drops by rope over the sides and takes close-up looks at any issues.

Acting supervisor and rope team member Benjamin Kalminson remembers his first adventure over the side.

“It’s definitely heart-stopping,” Kalminson said. “The first portion of the dam, you’re not actually able to touch the dam itself, so you’re just kind of free-floating there.”

Inspections also include occasionally drilling through the dam to take core samples and verify structural integrity of the interior.

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Reclamation also used a high tech drone to do the first drone survey of an agency dam in the nation.

“You’re looking at a structure that has been sound for 100 years,” said Ken Rice, an assistant area manager with the Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s doing exactly what it was built to do.”

Three turbines in the adjacent power plant are used to convert the flow of river water into electricity. However, because of low water levels in the lake, the turbines are usually only run during irrigation season.

Inside the dam, a network of tunnels and rooms provide access to different kinds of valves and other controls. Many pieces of the old steel hardware are original, some dating to 1911.

“Very impressive work,” said power plant operator Higgins. “We still use them daily.”

A long continuous staircase through the interior allows staffers to move from the top of the dam all the way to the bottom.

As for the water on the other side of the walls?

“When you’re in there and you’re doing the work, you do 100 percent forget that there is a lake on the other side,” said Kalminson.

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