LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KGET) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers marked the completion of repairs to Isabella Dam with a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday.
The ceremony was 17 years in the making at the dam built in the early 1950s. Many consider construction and completion at the dam the most important infrastructure project in Kern County.
Not long ago, Isabella Dam was considered one of the most dangerous dams in America. In 2006, the dam’s structural integrity was in question with it leaking at its base.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed repairing the dam on high priority, after concluding the dam would not withstand a major seismic event or a flood of historic proportions putting surrounding Lake Isabella, Bakersfield and other communities at risk of a catastrophic disaster.
“We knew in 2006 when we started this dam safety modification and study that we would need a bold solution,” Brigadier General Antoinette Gant said.
In all, the project cost just under a budgeted $323 million and took 10 years of construction to complete. That work brought a fully fortified dam and auxiliary dam, with enlarged spillways and a massive labyrinth weir.
“Today is the day we get to say no more studies, no more waiting,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said. “I’ve gone through four administrations, but we got it done. And thank you to all the workers for an amazing job.”
Safety upgrades to the dam started in 2013 with work on a massive weir to help channel flows in the event of major flood events.
In the spillways, widened and deepened, the walls are strengthened by a matrix of 35-foot long anchor bolts sunk into the rockbed. The tops of both the main and auxiliary dams, raised by 16 feet to increase lake capacity. At peak construction, a crew of 300 working two separate shifts a day.
“And we seeing lake and river levels we haven’t seen in a long time. and we’re finally going to get to capitalize on that. And that’s thanks to the tremendous efforts that have gone into this project,” Kern County 1st District Supervisor Phillip Peters said.
With a record-breaking snowpack in the Kern River watershed waiting to come down the mountains, the timing couldn’t be better U.S. Army Corps Principal Engineer David Serafini said.
“We timed it just right to be able to hold the snowpack that we have this year, to do the initial fill we’re approved to go above the restricted elevation. And do our initial fill with monitoring and put this back into normal operations.”
With modifications now finished, the Corps will lift capacity restrictions, filling the lake to the brim, capturing runoff and giving Lake Isabella and surrounding communities in the Kern River Valley their lake back.