Keeping Lake Lure on the Level

What it Takes to Keep Lake Lure on the Level

- Rain or Shine

Most of us take for granted that Lake Lure stays at the same level most of the time.  According to rainfall, drought and electricity demand, other lakes in the region rise and fall 10, 20, 30 feet or more during the course of the year.

Lake Lure is different, which allows us to have fixed-height docks and boathouses.  We manage the lake to full pond, meaning 990 feet above mean sea level.    

When the heavy rains come and Lake Lure handles the influx without much effect, Donnie McCraw is the man responsible. 

Donnie has worked at the dam for over a decade, becoming the supervisor in 2010.  He is truly a behind-the-scenes guy, working day and night to manage the lake level, using the hydroelectric generators, flood gates, weather forecasts and years of invaluable experience. 

Assisting Donnie at the plant is John Wilson, (pictured above with Donnie) a skilled machinist who operates the plant in Donnie’s absence and oversees equipment maintenance. 

In addition to supervising the dam and hydro plant, Donnie also manages the town’s sewer collection system…the manholes around the shoreline and the pipes at the bottom of the lake.  He works with property owners on new sewer connections around town and on leaks and issues.

Of his work at the dam, it’s real blend of art and science; he has to anticipate how rains anywhere in our 90-square mile watershed may affect the lake.  We utilize a network of stream height and rain gauges.

A heavy rain in Edneyville may cause Lake Lure to rise rapidly.  Sustained rainfall in Hickory Nut Gorge can bring water into the lake faster than we can get it out. So Donnie draws down the lake in advance.  He runs one or both generators, and then raises the three floodgates in increments.

About his job, Donnie said,

“The thing I enjoy most is that there isn’t a normal day in the hydro business.  There is always a challenge that presents itself, managing changing water levels, managing 1927-era equipment, working days at a time during storms, there is always a surprise.
  Ordinary days do not exist at the Lake Lure Hydro Plant.”

Handling the big storms

Heavy rain and sustained rain means rivers and streams like this one quickly overflow.
When heavy rain like this is forecast, the lake is intentionally lowered in advance by as much as eight inches below normal lake level. A drop of more than this must be approved by the Town Manager. On the lake, more property damage occurs from high water levels than low, so cautious management keeps the lake lower than full pond during rainy periods.

When the generators are not keeping the lake level down, Donnie utilizes the three flood gates to let out additional water.  When the flood gates have to be raised beyond three feet, we initiate a system of emergency communications, (CODE RED phone calls and public alert loudspeakers). 

If the lake level reaches 992.6' (two and a half feet above full pond), water starts to over top the lowest point of the dam.  At that point, docks are underwater and boat tops have been crunched in boathouses. 

Hydroelectric  Power Generation – green and sustainable!

In a typical year, we’ll make about $270,000 generating power and selling it to Duke Energy.  We have no way to store the power and use it later for our own needs, so we feed it into Duke’s transmission grid.

 2013 was one of the wettest years in memory.  Donnie ran the generators nearly continuously, which resulted in over a half a million dollars in revenue.  

The Town utilizes these revenues to pay for the staff and operating costs at the dam, for ongoing maintenance of the dam and hydro plant and for dredging where the river meets the lake.  In recent years, we’ve resurfaced the roof of the power house, refurbished one of the generators, painted the dam structures above the lake, installed electric controls for the water intake and converted the dam keeper’s home to a Lake Operations office. 

What are some interesting things Donnie has experienced in working at the dam?

“I have experienced hundreds of rain events, equipment breakdowns, a violent explosion of a DC circuit breaker. I have seen the lake rise 2 inches in 20 minutes and drop an inch a day when the generators were not running.  In the hydro business, breakdowns and challenges happen everyday and usually at the worst times. Keeping the generators and the floodgates in good mechanical condition are the keys to being successful.”


This big green thing in the photograph to to the right is the top of a Westinghouse 2200 KW generator, manufactured around 1920. 
This is the portion that creates electricity from a rotating magnet inside coils of wire.  Down below this device is the turbine that spins from the force of the water drawn in from the lake. 

What are Donnie's goals for the next few years?

"To keep the plant moving forward with refurbishment and upgrades and to keep generating as much revenue as possible without wasting any water. I want to be able to say I left the place in a lot better shape than I found it. Also, that I did everything I could to take care of the lake and the lakefront property owners and that my work was a benefit to the town.”

Donnie lives in Mill Spring and has five children…one in college and four that attend Lake Lure Classical Academy.

Fun fact:  Donnie’s brother Jeff is also a dam keeper and for 20 years has operated the hydro plant at the Turner Shoals dam just down the road on Lake Adger. The McCraws are quite the dam family.