Notre Dame Hydro Project: preparing for a sustainable future by looking to the past.

South Bend

Paul Kempf and Terry Opaczewski stood near the edge of a 30-foot-deep pit where construction workers are moving dirt and installing massive intake channels for a new hydroelectric plant that is being installed across from Century Center.

“It’s the type of project you will always remember working on,” said Opaczewski, director of operations for Mishawaka-based R&R Excavating. “Working on a hydro plant is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Those thoughts were seconded by Kempf, assistant vice president of utilities and maintenance at the University of Notre Dame, and others who have watched the project since it got underway in August.

“We knew there was going to be some dust and noise,” said Greg Downes, who has a birdseye view of the massive construction project from his new sixth-floor condominium in the adjacent Three Twenty at the Cascade. “But with COVID-19, it was actually a blessing, because it gave us something to watch.”

But beyond the uniqueness and size of the project, the hydroelectric plant marks a return to South Bend’s historical roots dating back to the 1840s, when leaders first aimed to harness the power of the river with the construction of dams.

Those dams helped fuel the growth of South Bend and other cities along the St. Joseph River, and some were eventually converted to produce electricity rather than just mechanical power. By the 1950s, however, most were abandoned as cheaper sources of power became available.

The riverfront ultimately became a less desirable location, even though there were plenty of attempts to create attractions — such as the East Race Waterway and the trail system — aimed at bringing attention back to the waterway.

But those efforts largely sputtered until the River Lights project was unveiled in 2015 to mark the 150th birthday of the city. The attraction ultimately proved that people would return to the riverfront; private and public investment followed.

Townhomes, condominiums, and apartments were built; Howard Park was redeveloped to become a year-round attraction, and restaurants and other new businesses started reopening near the river.

In the midst of the renewed interest in the riverfront, South Bend and Notre Dame worked out an agreement in 2016 for the city to transfer its long-unused federal permit to operate a hydroelectric facility on the river.

The city didn’t have the resources to build the $27.1 million project, let alone maintain the facility. At about the same time, Notre Dame adopted a goal to eliminate its carbon footprint by 2050 in response to a papal encyclical on climate change. The university already had converted its coal-fired power plant to natural gas, installed geothermal fields and focused on solar projects, among other moves.

Kempf has been involved in many of those efforts. Still, the hydroelectric plant is unique because of its scale and its connection to the city’s history.

“I grew up here, so I’m aware of the river’s importance to the industrial development of South Bend,” the engineer said.

The project

After planning with a variety of agencies, ground was broken on the hydroelectric project in August. Among other things, crews had to remove the Firefighters Memorial, elements of the River Lights attraction and commemorative bricks that were installed in Seitz Park.

Those items and others were placed in storage, but the performance pavilion had to be demolished. Interlocking steel pilings had to be pounded 40 feet below the surface of the river around Seitz Park to hold back the river and provide a safe area for workers to excavate while surrounded by water.

Three precast concrete intake channels — each measuring 14-by-16 feet already are being installed at the south end of the park. Those channels, which will be hidden below the park, will run for several hundred feet before taking a steep nosedive into five smaller chambers containing a total of 10 hydroturbines.

Near the mouth of the fish ladder on the north end of the park, the force of the rushing water will turn the turbine blades, generating about 2.5 megawatts of electricity or about 7% of the university’s needs.

Kempf estimated that the clean electricity will further reduce the university’s carbon dioxide output by about 9,700 tons a year. In a partnership with Indiana Michigan Power, the electricity will be transmitted to campus, largely via existing underground utility easements.

The water intakes for the hydro project have been designed so that most debris bypasses a filtering screen at the inlet to the plant. But in case finer debris and small fish slip through, there is another bypass and a smaller screen to protect the turbines as well as wildlife.

Kempf said the university has worked with a wide variety of agencies to minimize any impact of the hydroelectric plant on fish, the river bottom below the dam and even the park, which will eventually be rebuilt on top of the plant.

The plant will be able to borrow water from the river only when it’s flowing at a rate of greater than 580 cubic feet per second in order to preserve the necessary water flow for the spillway, the fish ladder, the East Race and the West Race in front of Century Center. That’s the first priority.

But even then, Kempf believes the river should be able to provide clean electricity to the campus year-round. Once the project is completed and has operated for a year, the university plans to conduct follow-up studies to ensure the design does not have adverse impacts on fish or the river bottom.

“As a renewable, hydro is pretty consistent,” he said, pointing out that energy is always being produced — even at night or when the air is still — unlike solar or wind turbines.

A park returns

As the project nears completion, Notre Dame intends to grade and return the property to the city for redevelopment into a slightly larger park. The steel piling will be removed or cut off so that it is no longer visible.

Officials are talking about placards that could explain to visitors the clean power that is being generated beneath their feet while they’re enjoying concerts, the River Lights or the views from the park.

Aaron Perri, executive director of the city’s Venues Parks & Arts, hopes the park is ready by early autumn next year, with the River Lights features, the Firefighters Memorial and commemorative bricks reinstalled and new amenities added, such as permanent restrooms.

Notre Dame will contribute $1 million toward the overall $5 million rebuilding project, which includes a new performance area as well as the reconstruction and improvements of the river trail system from the Jefferson Boulevard bridge to the Colfax Avenue bridge.

Work on the trails will get underway this summer, but it could be late this year or early 2021 before work can actually start at the park, Perri said.

Though the project predates current Mayor James Mueller, he said it makes sense because the city wouldn’t have been able to justify such a large expenditure. Instead, the city gained a contribution from Notre Dame for park improvements and the benefit of cleaner air as the university reduces its emissions.

“It’s a re-connection with the power that drove the city’s growth for 100 years,” Downes said. “It’s a great use of resources, fun to watch, and I can’t wait for the park to reopen.”

Originally published by Ed Semmler in the South Bend Tribune on June 8, 2020.