COLUMBUS, Neb. (AP) — When the announcement was made that $7.3 million in Public Works Administration funds would pay for a massive Loup River Public Power District project, it was celebrated locally with parades that rivaled those signifying the end of World War I.
The creation of the 35-mile Loup Power Canal, Genoa Headworks and powerhouses near Monroe and Columbus put more than 1,350 people to work, a significant number given construction occurred from 1934-37, during the heart of the Great Depression.
These days, the canal goes relatively unnoticed by those who pass over its waters. Perhaps it's best known as a prime fishing spot for anglers seeking trophy catfish and wipers. However, the 75-year-old project remains a marvel of engineering that plays a vital role in everyday life.
"In its time, this was a big hub for power for the state of Nebraska. It's still important today," said Brad Morton, assistant hydro superintendent for the power district.
Morton is part of a team of more than 30 people who work to keep the system operating smoothly, which is no easy task given its size.
The journey from water to electricity begins at the headworks southwest of Genoa. This is where the Loup River is diverted and begins its downhill trek toward Columbus.
Fourteen people — including one employee who lives on-site — work at the headworks, where sand and other sediment is removed from water entering the canal.
Loup River Public Power District is currently working on a multimillion-dollar project to replace the dredge, which has filtered enough sediment to create what was once known as the world's largest manmade sand pile, according to Loup Hydro Superintendent John Cieloha, who has overseen the canal system since 1991.
The canal drops at the rate of about 3 inches per mile after it leaves the headworks. Because about 80 percent of its path is accessible to the public, a crew of eight is needed just to maintain the canal and its adjoining parks.
With an average depth of 18-20 feet, the canal can move as much as 3,500 cubic feet of water per second — something that's crucial at its next stop.
The powerhouse located north of Monroe is a run-of-the-river plant, meaning it can't store water to generate electricity as needed. If there's too much, a bypass is opened that allows the canal to flow around the small plant. That's controlled by one plant operator who lives on-site.
This isn't a problem once water reaches the Monroe plant's big brother just north of Columbus.
The Columbus Powerhouse, with nearly seven times the generation capacity of Monroe, can handle a water flow of about 5,000 cubic feet per second, which is pulled from two storage reservoirs. A 1 1/2-mile intake canal connects the Columbus Powerhouse with Lake Babcock and Lake North, which was constructed in 1963 after Babcock silted in.
At full generation, "we'll clean the lake out and then some," said Jim Jakub, one of five plant operators at the Columbus Powerhouse.
But the power plant often generates electricity at lower levels, increasing capacity during peak use times, such as hot summer evenings.
Between the two powerhouses, 194 million kilowatt-hours of electricity were generated in 2010, enough to run 8,094 homes for a year. "That's a lot of houses," said Cieloha.
The electricity, which is sold to Nebraska Public Power District, equals about one-fifth of the annual production at NPPD's largest coal-fired plant, Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland.
Cieloha said the cost of electricity generated by the canal system is competitive with coal, and it offers a few advantages fossil fuels don't.
Although its not classified as a renewable energy source, Cieloha considers the power to be "green."
"It gives us a diverse energy mix," said NPPD spokesman Mark Becker. "We're not putting all of our eggs in one basket."
NPPD receives about 7 percent of its total electricity from hydro and renewable sources.
The Columbus plant also can go from idle to full power in minutes, giving its operators the ability to adjust production based on demand.
This task is accomplished through constant monitoring.
Inside the plant, operators work rotating 12-hour shifts, keeping a close eye on three monitors displaying generation, water output and temperatures at the Columbus and Monroe plants, along with other data from Tailrace, where the canal empties in the Platte River, Genoa Headworks and other parts of Loup's power grid. Operators document this information every hour of every day.
The powerhouse also serves as the official National Weather Service station for Columbus.
"On Christmas and New Year's, when you guys are having dinner, these guys are out here working," said Cieloha.
The goal is to produce the most electricity with the least amount of water, which can be tricky with so many variables, including the area's drastic weather changes, in play.
"It's changing conditions every day," Cieloha said.
When simplified, though, the powerhouses function using a centuries-old theory — gravity.
Water enters three massive intake pipes through a penstock located 112 feet above the Columbus Powerhouse. At Monroe, the elevation drop is just 32 feet.
The pipes — each 20 feet in diameter and 350 feet in length — carry the water to massive 12-feet-wide, 7-feet-tall turbines located inside the powerhouse. The turbine shafts are driven to 150 rpm to power the three 15.2 megawatt generators. Each of the Monroe Powerhouse's three units is 2.5 megawatts.
Transformers located outside the facility up the voltage from 13,800 to 115,000 before its sent to the power grid.
The nine Columbus Powerhouse employees, including a maintenance team, do most of their own work on the equipment, often using some of the original wrenches, ranging up to 3 feet in length, used to build the plant.
But the turbines and generators themselves aren't nearly as old.
Loup invested millions of dollars in both powerhouses from 2004-07 to upgrade the aging equipment and increase the capacity at Columbus by 15 percent.
"I don't think there's a piece of equipment that hasn't been updated or replaced in the past 20 years," said Cieloha, who will be replaced by Morton after his retirement May 31.
Still, the powerhouse is drained for an inspection each year using three 400-square-feet steel gates on the penstock that can stop the water flow at any moment.
While they're becoming less common outside of school groups, the employees at the Columbus Powerhouse also provide tours to any visitors who happen to stop by.
Cieloha likes to point out a set of railroad tracks still visible on the plant's main floor. These tracks were built for the sole purpose of getting equipment to the powerhouse, he said, a sign of just how important the project was and remains.
"It's a pretty complex system," said Cieloha. "When people turn on their light switch, they don't realize what's happening behind the scenes to make that work."
Information from: Columbus Telegram, http://columbustelegram.com