Ken Wenger, Park Manager at Milford Lake in northeast Kansas, loves that every day his job can look different. One day he can hop in the pickup and patrol the park, another day he can be on a boat inspecting the lake and 32 acres of the dam facing the lake. Today, his job is to lower the dam’s outflow, from 8,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 200cfs.
The Milford Lake Dam operates a sophisticated flood control system with gates that allow water to discharge into the valley below through a conduit under the dam. Levels vary based on the depth of the lake, the amount of water flowing into it, and the wildlife and water supply needs downstream.
Today, though, Ken needs to stage down the outflow a little bit every hour in order to dry out the conduit. To go from 8,000cfs to 200cfs at once would not be good for the downstream river channel or the fisheries program.
Once the conduit is dry, for the first time in ten years, government inspectors will need to walk through it to assess the systems and status of the Milford Dam. Ken is excited to see this rare view of the dam where he has worked for so many years, and his enthusiasm bubbles through his normally measured demeanor.
He heads out of the office and across Highway 57 towards the dam itself. He opens one barbed wire gate, unhitches a cable and opens yet another barbed wire gate. Security is important, as any tampering with the dam could lead to catastrophic flooding for the cities downstream, including Junction City. It has only gotten tighter since 9/11, and he will not allow any photos to be taken inside the dam. He used to give tours to elementary school students, but soon that too ended.
He opens a heavy, groaning steel door into a tall, cavernous concrete shaft that looks like something from another world. He descends down a narrow staircase spiraling around the outside of the shaft until he reaches the control room, where twin sets of levers sit in the middle of a concrete floor. It’s technology from the 1960s, original to the dam – a paper tape with a series of numbers indicates the flow level, and Ken pulls a lever while he watches the tape crawl by. When it hits the desired level, he releases the lever – one small motion controls the massive gates that hold back unimaginable amounts of water.
After returning to the office building, Ken displays the log book where he records such adjustments. It is the only logbook Milford has ever had, filled with scrawling handwritten data on every single adjustment made to the dam since it opened. It’s decidedly analog and old-school in a charming way, just like pulling a lever and watching numbered paper tape scroll by. But old school or not, it works – and you could say the same thing about Milford Dam.
To learn more about Kansas’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and local exhibition SubMerged, on display at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums from January 6 to February 18, 2018.