After the rains last week, I looked down from my seat on the South First bus to see Lady Bird Lake swollen and turbid, thick with silt and soil from creek bank and street. Here and there, logs and branches floated. Three floodgates had been opened at the Longhorn Dam.

Years ago, opening the flood gates at the Longhorn Dam had been my job. When the task migrated from Maintenance to Operations at Holly Street, my supervisor had joked, “now they can call us the dam operators!” But operating the dam was definitely no joking matter. The call to go to the dam often came during a driving rain; we climbed in and out of the bascule towers, walked between gates and stood in the downpour as we worked to keep the Colorado River from overtopping its banks.

Longhorn Dam has two automatic gates called ‘bascules’ and several manual lift gates. When heavy rains come, Austin Energy works with LCRA to maintain the correct level for Lady Bird Lake, sometimes opening the lift gates to handle flow that is too great for the bascules. The poem “The Dam” in Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems describes such a process:

The Dam

Rain now for two days straight.
The floodgates upstream have opened.
Harness and clip in,
dangle the oxygen sensor,
inside the bascule pier.
Jam a wooden block
inside the hydraulics panel
to stop the piston.

Stride slicker-suited
through the downpour
to the north pier
with its siren,
to the gate
with its electric control.

Fumble with the padlock
in the wet and cold.
Open the door,
pull the horn switch over,
three long blasts:
     the floodgates upstream have opened,
     the water is coming down,
     the water is coming.

Hold the stiff red button
firm against the contact.
The winch motor whines
and cable creaks, the gate moans
in complaint as it inches past
faded marks on the pylon,
jerks a bit as the water
rushes under it.

So many public servants in the utility and beyond do dangerous work in the service of the citizenry. Travis County Senior Deputy Jessica Hollis lost her life in the early hours of September 18, 2014 while checking a low water crossing during a heavy rain event. It is to her memory, and to the bravery and persistence of all those who undertake these dangerous tasks that I dedicate this post.

©Copyright 2014 Cindy Huyser

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