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Tom Harper: Updates to Bowersock Dam reveal remnants of the past, promise power for the future (Column)

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If you’ve been anywhere near the Kaw River downtown lately, you’ve noticed that a lot of work is going on around the Bowersock Dam that spans the river just east of the Massachusetts Street bridges. 

In recent weeks, the river has been lowered, ancient shoreline structures have been revealed and huge, deep expanses of shale, millions of years old, have been exposed —  in addition to scour holes where large catfish congregate, waiting for prey.

August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times Updates underway Dec. 12, 2021 at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence

The Bowersock hydropower plants, the dam and City of Lawrence have an intertwined relationship, with a rich history dating back to 1874. You can read more about that at this link.

If you go …
The work on the dam can be observed from the sidewalk on the east side of the bridge. Though it’s tempting to explore the areas near the dam and powerplant, it’s unsafe and illegal to trespass there.

Abe and Jake’s has a new patio that allows viewing and will increase recreational activities on the river.

The hydropower plants — there are two of them, north and south — are situated downstream of the dam to harness the natural flow of water to generate electricity through large turbines. It is one of the most efficient and “green” ways to generate electricity.

The City of Lawrence has been responsible for maintaining the structural integrity of the dam since 1977. The city receives more than 50% of its daily water needs from the area west of the dam. The water is pumped to the Kaw River Water Treatment Center, located at Third and Indiana streets.

In 2010, the city rebuilt and capped the northern two-thirds of the dam. Last year, repairs were made to the southern section of the dam. The work now underway is a continuation of that work and will be long-lasting in nature.

August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times Updates underway Dec. 12, 2021 at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence

While the work on the dam is being done, the south Bowersock plant is shut down and the north side remains fully functional, according to Sarah Hill-Nelson, who oversees the Bowersock complex. She estimates the south plant will lose a half year of production, with the work scheduled for completion in late winter.

The city hired Dondlinger Construction of Wichita to divert the water and make the necessary repairs on the southern section of the dam. Dondlinger has built temporary roads to divert the flow of the river and to safely gain access to make repairs downstream of the dam. 

Removing the water from these areas has given our community the opportunity to see what is underneath the water that normally rushes over the dam. It’s been interesting to see posts on social media showing volunteer teams and Bowersock staff removing large catfish from the shallow water, setting them free downstream. 

Another bonus has been the ability to view the towering north wall of the powerplant that shows the various materials used to construct it, along with additions and repairs. If only these walls could talk. For many years, the building has survived tremendous and sustained forces of nature, including significant floods and the constant flow of the Kaw.

According to Hill-Nelson, the southern part of the dam is constructed of huge masonry limestone blocks that were mined out of neighboring Jefferson County and probably installed in the mid-1880s. These huge stones can now be seen on the east side of the dam, along with a bridge pier from 1907. Hill-Nelson believes the pier is the remnant of the second bridge that spanned the river and was once connected to the stone bridge column that stands on the south bank of the river.

August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times Updates underway Dec. 12, 2021 at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence

Dondlinger has removed loose material downstream from the dam and has begun drilling holes in the dam to install rebar for reinforcement. Eventually the company will pour concrete and connect sections to support the dam properly. After the wall is completed, they will pour a concrete cap to match the one on the northern section of the dam. 

A long overdue improvement is upgrading the south Obermeyer system that was installed in 1994. This compressed air system controls the steel headgates that are raised and lowered to control the water flow. With the new technological advances, the north and south gates will be able to communicate with each other. The system will be controlled by computer or phone.

August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times

It’s hard to imagine anyone more passionate and knowledgeable about Bowersock than Hill-Nelson. She thrives on maintaining the plant, solving problems and navigating the waters that rush through.

Hill-Nelson says Bowersock is taking advantage of the downtime to provide much-needed maintenance and improvements to its plants. She hopes that with the updates, “we can have another 100 years of production from this powerhouse.” 

Our community is fortunate to have Hill-Nelson and the Bowersock hydropower plants on the Kaw, collaborating with the city. Our community benefits from this relationship. I hope it will endure beyond all our lifetimes to help meet our needs for water and electricity.

August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times Updates underway Dec. 12, 2021 at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence
August Rudisell/The Lawrence Times Updates underway Dec. 12, 2021 at the Bowersock Dam in Lawrence
About the writer
About the writer


Tom Harper is a Realtor at Stephens Real Estate helping people in Lawrence and Douglas County buy and sell real estate. He is the founder of Lawrence Modern, a group whose mission is to raise awareness of midcentury and modern architecture. You will find him posting frequently on Instagram under @lawrencemodern, sharing his daily observations of his favorite place on earth: Lawrence, Kansas. Read more of Tom’s writing for The Lawrence Times here.

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