USACE completes construction at Portugues Dam
By John H. Campbell
"Entonces, felicidades en sus logros," (Congratulations on your accomplishments).
That was the key message from Jo-Ellen Darcy, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), to those who attended a dedication ceremony Feb. 5 celebrating completion of Portugues Dam, a $386 million structure designed to reduce flooding impacts in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Darcy was among several high-ranking federal and Puerto Rican government officials who attended the ceremony, which was held at the top of a hill on an access road with the 220-foot high structure in the background.
"This dam will reduce the impacts of flooding for 40,000 people," said Darcy. "Thanks to this dam, fire stations, hospitals, and schools are now better protected."
Among the VIP's joining Darcy was the elected leader of Puerto Rico, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla; the mayor of Ponce, Maria Eloisa Melendez Altieri; the deputy chief for the Corps of Engineers, Maj. Gen. Todd Semonite; the Corps' South Atlantic Division commander, Brig. Gen. Ed Jackson; and the Corps' Jacksonville District commander, Col. Alan Dodd.
The newly-built dam is the final component of the Portugues and Bucana flood reduction project and is the first thick-arch roller-compacted concrete (RCC) dam in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' inventory.
"I learned yet another acronym," Darcy joked with audience members.
The RCC methodology uses a drier style of concrete when compared to conventional means. It is transported and placed using standard earthmoving equipment owned by many construction firms.
"It would have taken us three years to complete using the common conventional concrete," said Pablo Vazquez-Ruiz, the Corps' resident engineer for Portugues Dam construction. "By using RCC, we have accomplished (construction) in one third of the time."
Padilla praised the Corps for completion of the project, saying residents will no longer have to worry when heavy rains fall.
"This concern will be a thing of the past," said Paddilla. "This area will now come to be a safe place of joy, to appreciate nature. We will protect it for the enjoyment of generations to come."
The Portugues and Bucana project was initially authorized by Congress in the 1970s. The project included Cerillos Dam, an earthen structure completed in 1991 located northeast of Ponce. Additionally, stormwater channelization structures were constructed throughout the city, with the final structure being completed in 1997.
Portugues Dam presented several challenges due to unique geological issues at the site. The Corps attempted to begin construction in the early part of the 2000s, but higher than anticipated costs on a thin-arch design for the dam sent engineers back to the drawing board. After a number of years, a thick-arch, RCC design emerged. Construction began in 2008, and was completed in December.
The Corps has used the project as an educational tool through its "Dam Safety University" program. The program is intended to improve the knowledge of dam safety practices with newer engineers, as those who have worked on dams the Corps has previously constructed have retired or are nearing retirement.
"This is the first time we have used RCC technology in Puerto Rico," said Vazquez-Ruiz, "so this has served as a form of education to many engineers, students, and people on the benefits and virtues of RCC technology."
Now that construction has been completed, the focus shifts to filling the reservoir and testing the dam under various loads. Jacksonville District is also working on plans to turn over operation of the dam to the local sponsor, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environment Resources (DNER). DNER is expected to begin operating the dam in early 2015.
For Vazquez-Ruiz, completion of the dam is very gratifying.
"I am proud that the government is providing sound protection for the people," said Vazquez-Ruiz. ?"I have witnessed people dying as victims of flooding . With these structures, we shouldn't see the same incidents that we've seen in the past with flooding of these rivers."