Lawrence dam built to last ‘for the next 200 years’

Sarah Hill-Nelson jokes about bad karma these days, but she admits to being little anxious about the weather.

Hill-Nelson is CEO and co-owner of the Bowersock Mill and Hydropower Co. and is in charge of the family’s historic hydroelectric dam on the Kansas River below the Massachusetts Street Bridge in Lawrence.

The Hill family just completed a $25 million expansion of the 138-year-old operation, tripling the power potential.

It was a huge project, in cooperation with the City of Lawrence, that included emptying out a portion of the Kansas River and digging 50 feet into the river bed to essentially build a new dam immediately in front of the old one. They raised the river level a foot, and added a new powerhouse on the north side of the river with four larger generators.

The maximum capacity of the plant before was 2.3 megawatts, about enough to power 1,500 homes. With the new powerhouse, Bowersock Mill and Hydropower can generate up to 7 megawatts, enough for roughly 4,500 homes.

That’s it for the dam.

“We’re maxed out,” Hill-Nelson said.

The low river flows were a blessing during construction.. The project came in on budget and on schedule, going fully operational on Nov. 27.

Hill-Nelson joked that she was probably the only person in the state happy about the drought.

Now it’s time for the rain, so they can start generating power and repaying bonds. But on Thursday, only two of the dam’s seven smaller generators were producing electricity. The median flow on the Kansas River through Lawrence is nearly 3,400 cubic feet of water per second. On Thursday, it was 600.

The new generators have worked a total of two days since all four became operational.

But Hill-Nelson takes the long view.

The lenders required a large cushion in their financial projections. The plant would have to start making some serious cutbacks if the drought lasted three more years, she said.

“We’ve never seen a drought that lasts forever — yet,” she said.

Long view

Working in hydropower forces people to take the long view.

The large investments required in hydropower takes years, if not decades, to pay off.

The original dam dates back to 1874. The Hill family’s connections to the plant date to the late 1880s when Hill-Nelson’s great-great grandfather J.D. Bowersock bought it.

Power from the plant helped Bowersock build an industrial empire along the Kansas River. He sent the mechanical power up Massachusetts Street through steel cables and leather belts.

In 1903 a massive flood damaged the hydro plant, and jerked gear out of buildings up and down Massachusetts Street. When Bowersock rebuilt the hydropower plant in 1905, on the south side of the river, it was electrical.

The family transferred ownership of the dam in the 1930s to business partners. Hill-Nelson’s father, Stephen Hill, bought the decrepit plant in 1972 in the hopes of using it to power a recycled paper business.

But the business never took off and the Hills were left to manage the plant — broken windows, crumbling concrete and all — as best they could.

“It was pretty dicey,” Hill-Nelson said. “I don’t think anybody wanted it except my dad.”

An agreement for the city of Lawrence to maintain the dam helped. It also allowed for the gradual redevelopment of most of the 17 acres of Bowersock land along the riverside into what is now a hotel and city offices.

Stephen Hill said he plowed all revenue from the power company back into maintenance and very slowly improved the property during the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s.

“It was a hobby, something that you fall in love with,” he said, “and it had lot of historical significance for the family. My view was that energy would eventually become more valuable.”

Because of the way regulations were written, the company was more or less a captive seller to Kansas Power & Light, Hill-Nelson said. Starting in 1996, federal changes opened up markets for small energy producers, but Bowersock was under contract until 2008.

The expansion

With the agreement coming up, the Hills started plotting an expansion of the plant. They were ready when the federal stimulus act of 2009 included no- or low-interest bond programs that covered almost all of the cost for the project, Hill said.

Still, it was a huge undertaking. It had to move from a couple full-time employees to an operation running consultants, lawyers, architects, engineers, public meetings, city councils, bond sales and media relations.

“I was really nervous, and my dad wanted me to do this,” she said. “He’s my boss and he’s my dad. Privately, I was thinking, this is going to crater. But I’m going to keep doing what I’m supposed to do until we come to the wall and then I’ll say I gave it my all.”

But the team kept crossing the hurdles, she said. They got the 17 governmental permits. They got three kinds of bonds. They got local public support. And they got a drought.

Today, the project is done, with just one piece of money from the federal government program still outstanding.

On the wall of her office, Hill-Nelson still keeps the project whiteboard. Why?

“I have wondered that myself,” she said. “I have to get my feet under me. I’ve been going really hard on this since spring 2008.”

For her father, the feeling is just as powerful. He’s been managing the plant for 40 years.

“It’s totally gratifying,” he said. “It was a labor of love for a number of years. And, now we’ve rebuilt and redeveloped the dam and hydropower plant and put it back to first class shape. It will be a signature building. We built it to last for the next 200 years.”