DOUGLAS — LaPrele Irrigation District President Colt Rodeman is highly concerned about people camping at Ayres Natural Bridge Park overnight while spring snowmelt runoff is quickly filling the crack-ridden LaPrele Dam that sits a mere 10 minutes upstream.
“In just a heartbeat, if something were to happen . . . God forbid . . . Natural Bridge would be gone,” Rodeman told the Converse County Commissioners last week.
The park sits below the 111-year-old dam, which has known structural integrity issues. As of May 5, the water level was already close to the state engineer’s mandated safety limit of 5,475 feet above sea level, Rodeman said.
“We have structural cracks in there and we don’t know . . . I worry about the safety of people below my dam,” he said.
Following that meeting May 5, Converse County closed the park to camping until June 1 but left it open for day use.
“Caution should be observed while in the park, and fishing and floating in the creek should be considered extremely dangerous until water levels go down,” county officials said on their website.
Rodeman said water is being released from the dam daily for irrigation purposes, and he has already notified everyone “down below (the dam) on the creek” regarding the level in the dam and being safe. The dam is also monitored 24/7.
“At this moment, we are releasing more water than what is coming in. I’m trying hard to keep everyone informed. I’ve already received phone calls from people. I’m gonna’ tell you right now, in my opinion, once we go over the 5,475 feet (level in the dam) we are dead rights in emergency mode. I can’t control it anymore,” Rodeman stated last week – before more snow runoff and before this week’s rainstorms.
State officials, as well as the LaPrele Irrigation District which owns the private dam, have said building a new dam is the preferred solution, rather than fixing up the old one.
“We are trying like heck to get money, $50 million it’s gonna cost, to build a new dam. I’m chasing the money. We have our fingers crossed. I have been talking to our national people, I am trying to get more money. The thing I am concerned with, what I want you guys to understand, is the immediate concern. If (the weather) will cool off and let (the snowmelt) slowly come out, great, but if we have a flood, I am here to tell you right now, you better get everyone out of the park and keep them out of the park,” Rodeman said.
The commissioners agreed to have an alert sent out letting people know the park would be closed to camping for the immediate future.
“Closing it is the best thing to do right now with the uncertainty, and it is least inconvenient to the public at the moment. Last year with COVID we had multiple reasons we had to close the park for a time. We have been engaged with the LaPrele Irrigation District on the matter of the LaPrele Dam from the beginning,” Commission Chairman Jim Willox said.
For now, a weekly threat assessment on the dam and park will be released to the public through various media channels and on the county’s website. Visit conversecounty.org for more information.