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September 22, 2013

Duck River Dam Project skyrockets to $110 million; up $40 million from original estimate

The price of the Duck River Dam is going up, and water rates along with it.

City officials spent the summer anxiously waiting to find out how much the Duck River Dam would cost, after some additional excavation earlier this year proved the site was less suitable than anticipated for construction.

Following a full-scale engineering study over the past several months, the cost of the project is expected to jump from $70 million to approximately $110 million — a $40 million and 57 percent increase to build the reworked design.

Officials received the details of the engineering study earlier this week, and the findings will be formally announced at a utilities board meeting on Tuesday. Overall, the dam design will still have a roller-compacted concrete spillway in the center, with earthen dam sides on the east and west banks, though some engineering specifics have been greatly adjusted to fit the site.

When asked if the dam might be scrapped because of the cost increase, Cullman Mayor Max Townson said he still believes it is in the best interest of the community — even with the higher price tag. More than $20 million has already been spent on the project, and the board still has approximately $28 million in the bank from the initial bond. The next few phases will be funded with a new, approximately $60 million bond.

“We’re past the point of no return, and we’ve come too far at this point,” he said. “This is still something we need for future generations, and it’s amazing to me how quickly people can forget the drought we had just in 2007, and 1999 before that. We’re obviously not happy about what we’ve found out, but we still need this reservoir as an insurance policy for our future.”

Engineers have also spent the past several months trying to find ways to “value engineer” the design and bring down the higher costs, though engineers say the $110 million price tag is likely as low as it will go, barring an under-budget construction bid for the next phase. The price could also rise even further, as the current estimate allows for a -20/+30 margin.

“Once we got into the study, we realized it was a huge cost increase — not small,” said Tom Harwell, with engineer of record CH2M Hill. “So, we wanted to go back and look everything, and we took a step back and looked at everything we could.”

Most of the price increase revolves around the reworked spillway, which will be constructed using roller-compacted concrete with a fixed-crest design. The spillway will cost an additional $18 million, while additional soil grouting (a process to reinforce the ground with concrete and fill air voids) will add $5 million to construction costs. Additional focus on earthen sections of the dam and the intake will add  $5 million more.

An additional $6 million will also be needed for higher-than-expected costs to relocate some Tennessee Valley Authority and Cullman Electric Cooperative power lines, as well as to cover an increased cost in land acquisition, legal, engineering and construction management fees. Some changes to the dam pipeline and pump station are expected to add an additional $6 million, largely related to route constraints and right-of-way requirements.

Once complete, the project will create a 640-acre lake with a 32-million-gallon-per-day capacity in northeast Cullman County, which will work in conjunction with the area’s current sole major water source Lake Catoma.

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