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OPINION | REX NELSON: Dedicating a dam

by Rex Nelson | May 4, 2022 at 4:17 a.m.

It's spring break in Texas, and that means the restaurant at DeGray Lodge is full of Texans as I arrive for dinner on this Thursday night.

I get the last available table and stare out the window as the sun sets over DeGray Lake. It's hard to believe that it has been half a century since the dedication of DeGray Dam. My memories of that day are vivid. I was 12 years old, and my Boy Scout troop was assigned to help park cars for the dedication ceremonies on May 20, 1972.

U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan of Arkansas had been the key player in obtaining funds for the project. McClellan invited a Senate colleague, Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana, to speak that day. Ellender and McClellan were part of a group of influential Senate Democrats who saw to it that the South received its fair share of federal appropriations.

Ellender, born in 1890 in the Cajun town of Montegut in Terrebonne Parish, was a colorful character who joined the Senate in 1937, taking the seat once held by Huey Long.

Ellender was famous for his mastery of Cajun cuisine, often hosting senators and even presidents in his Capitol hideaway office for bowls of gumbo. From McClellan's standpoint, however, the important thing was that Ellender was chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and president pro tempore of the Senate. Prior to becoming Appropriations Committee chairman, Ellender spent 16 years as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Ellender died just two months later and was replaced by McClellan as Appropriations Committee chairman.

My highlight that day was being taken home by Dick Batson, one of our Troop 24 scoutmasters, in an old white ambulance owned by the Arkadelphia Fire Department. As we pulled into the driveway of my home, I convinced Batson to turn on the siren and the giant red bubble light atop the ambulance. My parents came running out the door to see what was going on.

DeGray Lake was the first reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be classified as a "pump-back-capable" impoundment. A small dam below the main dam formed a 400-acre lower lake, providing a water supply that can be pumped back into the main reservoir during times of drought and then used again for hydroelectric power generation.

The Caddo River in the Ouachita Mountains doesn't receive the attention of the Buffalo River or even the Kings River in the Ozarks. But there are plenty of canoeists and smallmouth bass fishermen who will tell you it's just as beautiful. Arkansas environmentalists of the era, such as Joe Nix of the Ouachita Baptist University faculty, fought a long battle to keep the Caddo from being dammed. Due to McClellan's political power, it ultimately was a losing battle.

The Caddo originates from cold-water springs southeast of Mena. From its origin to DeGray Lake, it flows 45 miles and drains 453 square miles. From DeGray Dam, it flows another seven miles before joining the Ouachita River just above Arkadelphia. The DeGray site had first been considered for a dam in the early 1900s when Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch visited in the region.

In the 1930s, at the urging of Arkansas' congressional delegation, the federal government conducted geological studies in the area. A dam was authorized by Congress in the 1950 River and Harbors Act, but the Korean War delayed funding. McClellan and Congressman Oren Harris convened a Corps meeting in Arkadelphia in November 1955 to push for funding.

The dam was included in the 1959 Water Supply Act, but again there was no funding to go with the authorization. Money finally was appropriated in 1961. Plans called for an 11,800-acre impoundment, but that later was increased to 13,400 acres. Engineers decided to use a warm-water release rather than the cold-water release of earlier Corps reservoirs in the state in order not to kill native fish populations downstream.

The Corps also decided not to build a concrete dam. The 3,400-foot earthen dam was the largest of its kind in Arkansas, rising 243 feet above the Caddo. A three-mile earthen dike was also constructed, and Arkansas 7 was diverted atop the dike, creating what's still among the most scenic views in the state. I can remember countless weekend drives with my parents to see the dam and dike being constructed.

Winston Brothers Co. of Minneapolis and Green Construction Co. of Des Moines were given the job of drilling a 1,700-foot tunnel through solid rock for diversion of the Caddo River. The project took 28 months from early 1964 until the summer of 1966. Turbines were placed at the lower end of the tunnel.

Potashnick Construction Co. of Cape Girardeau, Mo., built the dam and dike. A spillway was constructed by Arkansas Rock & Gravel Co. of Murfreesboro.

The gate was closed on Aug. 8, 1969, and the lake began to fill, covering land where my father had taught me to hunt quail. More than 7 million cubic yards of compacted earthen fill were used, and the final project cost was $64 million.

In November 1971, the Corps reached an agreement with state government for construction of the first resort state park. The following year, the state signed a lease for a site containing 938 acres. Construction began in 1973 on an 18-hole golf course, the first such course to be operated by state government. A marina and campsites were open by 1974. The 96-room lodge opened in 1975.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park is still considered to be among the capstone projects of Dale Bumpers' four years as governor (1971-75).


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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