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.
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