By Robert Lucke
Nick Finny got up close and personal with the finny tribe in Beaver Creek Reservoir last week. He is a professional diver employed by Liquid Engineering out of Billings.
Finny's job was to find the 30-foot-tall outflow tower some 35 feet underwater and about 40 feet out from the dam embankment. When found he was to start an inspection of the structure. He had only 50 minutes to do that before he had to surface.
The water temperature was 36 that day. Above, it was a bad day for those people huddled at the top of the embankment. It was snowing heavily and the wind made visibility even across the lake impossible.
Marv Cross of the Havre office of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation peered at the bubbles Finny made on the surface of the lake, saying to no one in particular that Finny was way too far to the right to find the tower.
"What they are doing right now is to try and inspect the outflow tower," Cross said. "The dam was constructed in 1975 and that tower has never been inspected since it was constructed. It is time to do that now. It is not much different than your car. You have to do some upkeep once in a while."
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette noted how valuable the dam is for Hill County.
"The dam was built for flood control, recreation and irrigation," she said. "It is valuable for us all. The irrigation speaks for itself and as far as recreation goes, there is always someone out here fishing. Look, there is someone now on the shore. And with flood control, you only had to be around a couple of years ago to see the value of this dam in controlling flood waters."
Meanwhile Finny was communicating from the bottom of the reservoir to his associates on the shore. He had walked in the murky darkness over riprap underwater.
"That is like pulling tires in football," he said.
Soon he was over the riprap and into silt that even more blocked his vision. With every step there was a cloud of silt that enveloped him.
The commercial diver explained more about his experience underwater when he resurfaced after identifying the tower.
"Down there I couldn't even find the tower until I bumped into it. It was so murky," he said. "You throw up a pile of silt whenever you walk. In fact it is so dark that when I was coming out I saw some light and immediately I surfaced. There is not even any light until you are right at the top."
The divers spent the rest of the day doing several inspections on the tower, which sits on a berm extending out from the dam embankment.
Probably they enjoyed their underwater experience more than those who waited through the blizzard on the dam embankment, watching the dives and listening to the divers talk among themselves.
Grant pays for inspection
If you noticed divers out at Beaver Creek Reservoir last week, don't think they are looking for a sunken ship loaded with gold. Nor are they Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks people trying to a walleye count in the reservoir.
It is all part of a plan to discover what parts of the dam need work now and what parts don't.
Hill County got a Montana Renewable Resources Grant for $75,000 to look into the quirks and quarks of the 20-some-year-old dam in Beaver Creek Park.
"We know what the problems are out there but we need specifics and costs to do the repairs that are needed," said Heidi Bischoff of the Hill County Health Department, who oversees operation of the dam for the Hill County Commission.
A little of that money, which also includes another $37,500 in matching funds, will go toward construction at the dam, but county authorities are hoping for another grant to fix what is needed.
Four engineering firms put in bids to do this project and were rated by county officials. HKM out of Billings got the job.
The work at the dam this fall is divided into six categories, according to Bischoff.
Seep hole investigation. There is an old seep hole at the eastern edge of the dam embankment. It has been there for years and dam officials want to know why.
The county had more piezometers installed for measuring water levels in the embankment. Those are wells that monitor the depth of water in and under the embankment. They are checked quarterly.
Divers will do an underwater inspection of dam and outlet works.
There will be an inspection of the gates, pressure chamber and other related equipment.
There will be a geotechnical assessment of the dam to check for changes in the embankment over the years.
There will be a survey of the dam. It is anticipated that a contour map of the dam will be prepared.
"It is very important that all this work is done," Bischoff said. "The dam is about 30 years old and we need to maintain it. The county does not have a big budget so the grant helped to make all this possible. There will be a larger grant for the construction phase."
The dam is in very good shape, Bischoff wants folks to know.
"It just needs some maintenance. It is called a high hazard dam because there are so many people who live below it," she said.
"The whole thing has been a great learning process for me," Bischoff said. "I have had lots of help from Marvin Cross from the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conversation) office, Karen Hoffman from NRCS (federal Natural Resources and Conversation Service), the Hill County commissioners and Anne Marie Robinson of Bear Paw Development."
Robert Lucke is the dam tender for Beaver Creek Reservoir.