Lake faces 'slow death'

ASHLAND — Little Hyatt Lake will be drained by at least 4 feet in the coming weeks to relax pressure on its porous, 84-year-old dam that engineers fear could collapse from the weight of the lake.

The emergency action signals what federal Bureau of Land Management officials said could be the beginning of the "slow death" of the 11-acre Greensprings reservoir popular among anglers, hikers and picnickers.

Agency workers pulled old flash boards on both sides of the Greensprings dam this past week, and agency engineers are mulling whether to install one or more pumps to draw down the 11-acre reservoir the requisite 4 feet.

At the urging of state dam inspectors who labeled the cracking concrete structure a liability and at risk of failure, the BLM had to move toward drawing down the lake now instead of waiting until September as planned, said John Gerritsma, area field manager for the BLM, which inherited the dam and reservoir 14 years ago.

"It's a question of risk," Gerritsma said. "It's not an acceptable risk to have this kind of safety issue and not take some kind of action."

The BLM is awaiting an independent engineering report, due in early August, that ultimately will help determine whether the dam should be breached, buttressed with concrete supports or removed, Gerristma said.

"It's ultimately going to go away," Gerristma said. "Our best bet is the slow-death method with the buttressing.

"If it works, we'll extend the life of the dam and the life of the lake," he said. "That's the best we can hope for."

Despite its engineering issues, the lake is a favorite among Greensprings residents and others who see its idyllic setting and undeveloped shores as a good alternative to the region's more developed recreation sites.

News of the draw-down saddened Greensprings residents such as Ron Schaaf, who has lobbied the BLM for a decade not only to keep the lake intact but also to strengthen the dam.

"It seems like this little place is slipping through our fingers," Schaaf said. "I guess I can understand it from their standpoint.

"But the thought that it could be a complete failure in a moment's notice is beyond me," said Schaaf, who hopes buttressing of the current dam will stave off the lake's death.

The dam's structural integrity is only one of many pitfalls facing Little Hyatt Lake, minutes from Hyatt Lake along the Greensprings highway east of Ashland.

The BLM, which took possession of the lake and dam from the Talent Irrigation District in 1993, has no state water right to impound the lake. Also, part of the lake covers private land, creating a potential trespass problem.

The lake has been in place since 1923, when the dam was built for the Talent Irrigation District as part of its early delivery system for pushing water from Hyatt Lake into Emigrant Lake for its patrons in the Bear Creek basin. When the federal Bureau of Reclamation built the Keene Creek Reservoir, Little Hyatt became inoperable.

Though irrelevant to irrigators, Little Hyatt has remained popular with people looking for recreation off the beaten path. TID considered removing the dam in the early 1990s, but the district signed it over to the BLM to keep the lake's recreational opportunities intact.

So far, flows into Little Hyatt from Hyatt Lake have been only slightly less than the out-flows, so the lake has dropped about six inches in the past week.

Gerritsma said the BLM is exploring options, such as pumps, to drop the lake level.

"What a shame. It was a neat little lake," said Tom Sherrill, who lives downstream of Little Hyatt and has never feared the dam would burst.

"It's too bad for everyone, not just the people who live up here," Sherrill said. "But I guess they have to do what they have to do."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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