In 1999, Franklin County was promised a 1,050-acre man-made lake that would make the area a vacation destination with a marina, fishing and boating, cabins, a lodge and conference center.
Five years later, Lake Okhissa stands empty, overgrown with weeds. As for the lodge and other tourist attractions – none of that has come to pass. The holdup is tied to a dispute between the federal government, which paid for the project, and the contractor hired to build the lake`s dam.
Contractor John H. Parker of Natchez claims there were serious premature failures at the dam which resulted from a poor design, and these failures pose a risk to public safety if they are not fixed correctly. The federal agency in charge of the construction, the U.S. Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS), maintains that there is nothing wrong with the dam`s design.
When finished, the Okhissa dam will be 94 feet tall, making it the second highest dam in the state behind Sardis. Since Parker started the project in 2000, he has repeatedly voiced his concerns that the dam could break.
“It`s kind of like creating Frankenstein, which is the water. It`s all right to create him, but you better have a good cage around him,” said Parker. “A high hazard dam is a potentially devastating creature when you stack water as high as that dam.”
The trouble started when Parker notified the NRCS in 2001 that he did not think the soil was good underneath the “box,” which is a concrete box conduit that allows water to stream through the center of the dam to the creek on the other side. Several feet of soft soil had been removed, but Parker recommended removing even more so that the box would have a firm foundation. After an inspection, the NRCS said the soil was fine and ordered Parker to start building the box.
The box now has cracks, which Parker maintains is due to poor design of the box and the soft soil underneath. In February 2003, he wrote to the NRCS that the principal spillway had settled approximately one foot and had failed. “The conduit is leaking…We are concerned about the dam`s integrity and the safety of construction personnel and equipment which travel over it,” Parker wrote.
The NRCS maintains the cracks in the box are due to settling, and this was anticipated in the box`s design. NRCS engineer Kim Harris said a survey two weeks ago showed there has been virtually no settlement in the last nine months, and that the settlement that has occurred is well within the NRCS’ projections.
Parker was also concerned about the cellular block system on the slope of the dam that serves as wave protection. He told the NRCS that the materials were failing from normal rainfall and therefore wouldn`t withstand waves from the lake.
Harris said there is nothing wrong with the system, and that Parker`s crew did not install it correctly.
“If installed according to plans and specifications, the original design will be more than adequate,” said Harris. “It`s been proven on previous projects in Mississippi.”
But Parker maintains this particular cellular block design has not been used nor proven on any project in Mississippi or elsewhere and has no engineering basis.
The NRCS terminated Parker for default in April 2003, approximately 60 days before the contract completion date, when the job was more than 90% complete. In a letter to Parker, the NRCS stated that the termination for default was based on “your failure to perform, make progress and that failure endangered the completion of the contract.”
The NRCS further stated “there are no corrective measures or design problems in this project.”
Parker plans to file suit in federal court. He said he completed 93% of the work in 85% of the time, but the NRCS delayed the project due to a change order with the concrete cellular block system.
The integrity of the box
Concerned about the dam`s safety, Parker hired Pritchard Engineering Inc. of Starkville in October 2002 to examine the dam. Engineer Clyde Pritchard concluded that the box had failed, and the probable cause was the settlement of weak soil beneath the structure. Pritchard also found fault with the cellar block system.
“The integrity of the box culvert is critical to the safety of the dam,” wrote Pritchard in his report. “I am particularly concerned that failure to appropriately repair or replace the conduit may result in a sudden catastrophic failure, endangering life and property.”
In February 2003, Parker went to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran`s (R-Miss.) office in Jackson. Cochran is chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which presides over the NRCS. Cochran ordered the NRCS to inspect the dam. The NRCS reported that cracks and settling had occurred, but that these were anticipated in the design.
In October 2003, Parker went back to Cochran`s office. Cochran contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who turned the matter over to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). MDEQ had approved the dam`s original design back in 1998.
MDEQ hired independent party, Schnabel Engineering South, LLC, of Alpharetta, Ga., to examine the dam. In December 2003, Schnabel found that the stability of the dam was in question and there was a “clear need for conduit repairs.” The report said there appeared to be soft soil beneath the box, and if that proved to be true, future settlement of the box could be expected.”
MDEQ then sent a letter to the NRCS with several recommendations including redesigning the cellular block system, putting all activities associated with the dam under the direct supervision of a registered engineer, and having NRCS get final approval from MDEQ for any changes in the future.
The two agencies met on Jan. 30 to discuss the recommendations. Neither agency would say if the NRCS will follow the MDEQ`s recommendations, only that the NRCS is drafting a letter in response to the recommendations. Harris did say the NRCS does not plan to change the cellular block system, and that the agency is going to provide MDEQ with additional test results that were taken during construction “to show the slopes are stable and that the integrity of the dam is not in question.”
“We jointly recognized the issues that have come to our attention regarding dam safety and we’re going to make every effort to address each of those items,” said Harris.
Meanwhile, the NRCS has hired Pickett Industries of Shreveport, La., in a $2.2-million contract to finish the last eight feet of the dam and several other jobs so that the lake can finally be filled. Harris said he hopes to see the dam project finished by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, Franklin County is still waiting for Lake Okhissa and the tourism dollars that are expected to pour into the area. A market study conducted by the University of Mississippi in the late 1990s predicted that the lake and its amenities would attract over 200,000 visitors per year within three years of opening. Those visitors are expected to spend $3.5 million a year at the recreation site and create a $6-million economic impact on the area.
The recreational complex could include conference facilities, a lodge, cabins, beaches, boat ramps, a marina, picnic shelters, fishing piers, camping pads, playing fields, a game room, hiking, jogging and biking trails, and an environmental education center. The facilities are planned on 4,000 acres of national forest land surrounding the lake.
The U.S. Forest Service plans to bring in a private developer to build and operate the park and will solicit for a developer this spring. Interested parties can call the Forest Service Lake Team at (601) 384-2814.
The delays had slowed enthusiasm, but “it`s up and running again,” said Mary Bell Lunsford, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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