Trendsetter Cities 2022 - Lake Ouachita Water Supply Project
The history of Hot Springs, Arkansas, is infused with water. Going back thousands of years, the natural hot springs drew diverse Native American groups who agreed the area – “the valley of the vapors” – would be a peaceful respite for rejuvenation. Presently, these same springs continue to attract visitors, now from across the globe, along with the area’s five “Diamond Lakes.” In 2010, realizing the future of Hot Springs is equally dependent on the availability of water for residents and guests, City leadership embarked on a search to increase allocations for its regional water system – enough to solidify this vitally important natural resource for generations. After a dozen years and many more challenges overcome, on August 22, 2022, the city celebrated the launching of a tunneling machine that will bore a half-mile through a mountain to lay a 56-inch raw water line – the longest mining project of this size direct pipe in the history of North America. This line will provide up to 23 million gallons of water a day (MGD) as a part of the City’s largest ever infrastructure project – the Lake Ouachita Water Supply Project.
[ Click to view the Supplemental Materials PDF submitted for the water project award entry ]
The City has long used Lake Hamilton and its reservoir at Lake Ricks to pull up to 25 MGD for its utilities customers, but dating back to around 2002, the City began pursuing additional water sources. Although that initial search stalled, the City’s water usage began to exceed 80% of its production capacity in 2010, which caused the hunt for water to rise up as a higher priority project.
“In 2012, it really started in earnest, and we had many, many people who helped us along the way,” said City of Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough at the tunneling machine Launching and Dedication Ceremony held on the opposite side of Blakely Mountain from Lake Ouachita.
Burrough, who signed the nose of the tunneling machine with “13 Years!” to represent the time from 2010 until the expected completion of this monumental water supply project in late-2023, also serves as president of the Mid-Arkansas Water Alliance (MAWA). He explained that the Lake Ouachita Water Supply Project started with an agreement forged between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and MAWA. Hot Springs’ sub-allocation of 23 MGD comes from that association’s agreement. Neighboring water providers Hot Springs Village and North Garland County Water also benefited with allocations from the agreement, which “did not happen overnight,” as Mayor Pat McCabe put it in his remarks at the launching ceremony. In fact, he said they “thought this project had taken its last breath a number of years ago,” causing the sails to shift towards a possible allocation from Lake DeGray. “All of the sudden there was a little spark in the fire pit, and that spark grew, and grew and grew and grew, and the next thing you know, we got access to water from both lakes – Lake Ouachita and Lake DeGray,” said McCabe. Adding to the current output capacities, the new Lake Ouachita allocation of 23 MGD and the 20 MGD from Lake DeGray, the City of Hot Springs will have contracts that give the City access to a potential total capacity of 63 MGD. As the supply of water becomes scarcer, the City of Hot Springs will continue to rise above other municipalities as a destination for families, businesses, manufacturing and other opportunities thanks to having secured such a strong supply of high-quality water.
With the launching of the tunneling machine, custom-built in Germany using geotechnical boring samples from Blakely Mountain, the real work began. Leading up to this monumental point, however, were multiple trips to Vicksburg to work with representatives from the Vicksburg District of the Corps of Engineers; regular meetings with the Ouachita River Valley Association and local, state and federal officials; boat rides and thick-forest hikes searching for intake sites; and many challenges, including Covid-19.
“When we started this process, we were pre-Covid and it was about a $110 million project. At the end of the day, we will probably have around $150 million invested in this project,” said Burrough. “Those are big numbers, but what we are solving are big challenges, and I believe that when this is complete, history will be very kind to this Board of Directors and those that came before and after.”
Although the financials do seem substantial, particularly after the supply-chain issues caused construction costs to go up, many cost-conscious elements of the Lake Ouachita Water Supply Project have and will continue to save the City and its current and future water customers. Although the geotechnical boring took “the better part of a year” and was an investment of “several hundreds of thousands of dollars,” as Crist Engineers President Matthew Dunn shared at the launching ceremony, the samples gave potential bidders on the project vital information that saved the City many times the expense. Choosing to go through the mountain rather than over it will make it so the Lake Ouachita water will be gravity-fed 17 miles south to a new water treatment plant being built as a part of the project. This engineering innovation will have exponential cost savings and environmental-friendly benefits moving forward. Even as unexpected costs have arisen in the project, such as the need for another tunneling contract for one of two lake crossings along the 17 miles of water line, measures were taken to minimize their impacts. In the case of the lake crossing tunnel, through negotiations and “value engineering ideas,” as Engineering Project Manager Todd Piller put it, the City saved nearly a million dollars.
The City’s Lake Ouachita Water Supply Project, which includes the record-setting tunnel for the intake site at Blakely Mountain, the 17 miles of 48-inch welded steel raw water transmission main and the new water treatment plant, has involved foresight and many difficult decisions. However, the decisions made to push through the obstacles and complete this project will have a lasting impact. “It’s very seldom that you get to participate in something in your career that will have a generational effect, an effect far beyond when we leave this earth this project will continue to serve many people and future generations,” said Burrough. “I take a lot of pride in that. I’ve got a 4-year-old grandson, and we are solving problems that maybe he won’t have to deal with when he’s a little bit older.”