What The Warner Dam Can, Can’t Do

In the late 1970s, I was a freshman legislator in Albany looking for a good project for my district.

A friend and county planner at the time, John Luensman, suggested rebuilding Warner Dam, a water-control structure in the outlet of Chautauqua Lake. It was in bad shape and only one or two of the gates were working.

Nobody wanted to assume ownership of the dam — the city of Jamestown said, “No,” the BPU didn’t want it, the county said it had no jurisdiction. So, the appropriation in the state budget went to the DEC. A couple of months later when I called the DEC to check on plans for the project, they said: “We don’t do dams.” I suggested that they look at a certain page in the state budget. Ultimately, they let the contract and the Warner Dam has been running with “new” gates and a rebuilt foundation since about 1980.

In a document, forged also under the tutelage of John Luensman — the city, county, state and the BPU agreed on how the dam should be operated.

A precondition in entering into the agreement was the general understanding of what a dam like this was capable of performing. It could tweak the water levels in Chautauqua Lake but it could not totally control those water levels. There was a lake here long before the first dam or impoundment was ever built. There is a natural ledge situated near where the Third Street Bridge is now located. The actual rapids which powered the first water-wheel mills in Jamestown started near the current Sprague Street Bridge, closer to the BPU Plant and upstream from the current dam.

The agreement reached by the parties then and still in effect today is that there will be a targeted water level of 1308.25 feet above sea level for the lake during the summer. Historically, this has been the prime lake level during the summer season. In late fall and winter, the level of the lake is allowed to drop a bit to prepare for snow melt and spring run-off.

Of course, what happens if we have a lot of rain in spring and early summer like this year? Answer — the lake fills up faster than the outlet can empty it. (Think of how a bath tub takes longer to drain if, at the same time, you have the faucets on.) At its maximum, the outlet below the dam can only handle a flow of about 1,500 cubic feet per second before there starts to be flooding in Falconer and points downstream. In general terms, if the lake goes up a foot from heavy rain — it will take about 10 days to bring the water back down to normal lake levels providing no new rain or run-off comes along.

There are, of course, complaints from lakeside owners as soon as the lake level rises, wind comes up, and docks start going out. But, by that time, the BPU, which operates the dam, has, in most cases, already opened up the gates to increase the outflow and help address the problem.

Another couple of interesting facts:

¯ The BPU no longer discharges heated water from its condensers into the river. The power plant now has cooling towers and a closed-loop system for cooling its turbines.

¯ The first dam was built by James Prendergast, the founder of Jamestown. There were subsequent owners one of whom was Lucius B. Warner, who also operated some of the water power mills along the Chadakoin River. His name still lives on every day through this water-control structure which continues to have some, though a limited, effect on the water levels of Chautauqua Lake.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.