As Jan Haima flipped the switch on Lake Whitney’s giant new hydroelectric turbines Wednesday, a bell rang, and a long-ago memory flashed back.
She and her twin sister, Nan, flipped the switch on the original dynamos in 1953, when they were 5 and their father was the project engineer for Lake Whitney, then the biggest lake in Texas.
Ever since then, Lake Whitney and its 10-story powerhouse have held a special place in her heart.
“I still come to Whitney all the time,” said Haima, a Houston resident who was part of the dedication ceremony Wednesday for the new turbines. “I’m so proud of what it’s become.”
The ceremony with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials capped a decade-long effort to renovate the last remaining hydropower facility on the Brazos River.
The $32 million project allows the powerhouse to respond to electrical demands more quickly and to squeeze more energy out of the same amount of falling water.
The new Toshiba turbines are rated to produce up to 43 megawatts, replacing the original Allis-Chalmers units that could produce no more than 30 megawatts.
The two new units have been running in testing mode since 2014. In mid-June last year, after a heavy flood period, they were producing a record 38 megawatts, enough to power 33,000 homes, said Brady Dempsey, assistant operations project manager for the regional Corps office.
Dempsey said the old turbines were losing their capacity and becoming more difficult to service. The new units are more efficient and can be turned on much more quickly to meet sudden surges of electrical demand in the grid.
That nimbleness also could create a hazard for recreational users who fish and paddle just downstream of the dam, said Lake Whitney manager Abraham Phillips. In the past, three alarms would sound before water was released from the dam, giving users a 15-minute warning. But now, recreational users near the dam should be prepared to seek higher ground immediately after a single siren, he said.
The Brazos River Electrical Cooperative buys the hydropower through the federal Southwestern Power Administration to serve rural electrical cooperatives throughout Central Texas. Ratepayers in the system are helping pay for the renovation.
The hydrodam brings in about $2 million a year, though that power would cost three times that much if a new facility had to be built, said Marshall Boyken, an official with Southwestern, which makes payments to the U.S. Treasury.
Boyken said the renovation ensures a stable and sustainable supply of power for decades to come.
The other hydroelectric dam on the Brazos River, at Possum Kingdom Lake, was decommissioned in 2010 after its owner, the Brazos River Authority, concluded that it was not cost-effective to renovate it.
Unlike Possum Kingdom Lake, which was completed in 1941 and intended for water and power supply, Lake Whitney’s primary purpose was to protect downstream cities from floods.
The Lake Whitney dam was started in 1947 and finished in 1951, with a flood capacity of 1.62 million acre-feet, or 528 billion gallons. That flood capacity spared Waco from a catastrophe in the 1957 flood, and it blunted the impact of flooding in the Houston area last spring.
Still, not everyone in the Whitney area welcomed the dam when it was announced in the 1940s, recalls Jan Haima’s sister, Carol Haima, who also attended the ceremony Wednesday.
Her father, Mark Haima, was not only the lake’s project manager but also the face of the project to suspicious neighbors who saw it as a land grab of prime cotton farmland. According to a 1946 Waco News-Tribune article, he “tramped amiably all over the Brazos bottom, climbed limestone ridges and answered all questions.”
Carol Haima said his personality eventually won over the locals, but it took a while.
“The reception for my family was not warm,” she said. “I was in the fourth grade, and all I knew was that no one came to my birthday party.
“We were certainly not welcome, but my father was such a good and trusted public servant that he just talked with people and met with people and helped them to see the advantages: the employment opportunities, the recreational things that could be part of the future.”
Jan Haima, whose twin sister is now deceased, said she didn’t know all the politics of the dam when she flipped that switch 64 years ago. She was only 5, after all.
“I think some people were not excited for the dam being built,” she said. “But of course, we saved Waco.”