LIMA — “We’ll go down here,” Mike Caprella said, easing a silver Jeep Liberty down a steep ramp of hard-packed dirt.
The dry, flat landscape hidden behind the 50-foot walls of Lima’s new reservoir looks like a desert. Come spring, water will begin flowing from the Auglaize River through two miles of underground 54-inch pipe to turn the dusty hole into a 5.1 billion gallon oasis.
Caprella is the city’s deputy utilities director, but on this day he’s guiding the safari into this seemingly foreign terrain.
A little more than a year ago, the 640 acres of land that make up Williams Reservoir’s footprint was flat and unspectacular Amanda Township cropland. Now, construction crews have turned more than 4 million cubic yards of soil, scooping out a bowl up to a mile across.
The heavy scrapers, dump trucks and track hoe working halfway across the void look like Tonka trucks moved by invisible hands in an enormous sandbox.
At $23 million, Caprella said the reservoir is the most expensive infrastructure project the city has ever undertaken. When the reservoir is finished, it will be the city’s largest, edging next-door Bresler by 200 million gallons.
Five billion gallons of water is almost beyond comparison. A large highway tanker truck holds just 9,000 gallons. Elida’s new water tower carries 500,000 gallons. An Olympic-size swimming pool contains 660,000 gallons.
Planning started years ago, led by a slate of environmental studies. Nothing is overlooked. Crews search for asbestos in old farm houses, long-buried trash piles and archaeological remains. They make sure that no trees are cut that endangered Indiana bats called home, and that disruption to wetlands was kept to a minimum.
Wetlands on the project area’s north and south sides, as well as a 20-acre tract smack in the center, proved the largest challenge in developing a design plan, said Tim Van Echo, the chief engineer on the project with BBC&M Engineering Inc.
Disturbing any wetland area requires an OK from the Army Corp of Engineers in coordination with the Ohio EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Van Echo’s firm presented three plans: the preferred approach, an approach with minimal disruption and an approach that disturbed no wetlands at all.
“For this reservoir that was an impracticality,” Van Echo said. “You had to show them something, but it didn’t make any sense to try to build almost a donut. And they realize that. It’s sort of a negotiation.”
As a result, the reservoir takes on a sort of bloated T shape with eight sides. Trees in the center were cut down.
“The stumps had to remain, and they couldn’t take out the dirt,” Caprella said with some bemusement. “So it remains actually classified as a wetland, even though it’s going to have 40 feet of water over it.”
The person with the Ohio EPA who handles wetland programs wasn’t available for comment.
BBC&M designed 40 acres of new wetlands with 2,800 trees near the corner of Agerter and Sunderland roads.
With studies done and permits in hand and hundreds of soil core samples drilled, an army painted in Caterpillar-yellow began lumbering away 22 hours a day to scrape away the soil. The other two hours, Caprella said, were needed for maintenance on the 50-plus pieces of machinery.
The process isn’t so much digging down as it is building up. The bottom of the reservoir is only about 10 feet below the farmland that once covered the area. It’s made of nothing but compacted dirt.
Ohio’s thick clay — 5 to 6 feet at the site of Williams and Bresler — means reservoirs built here typically need nothing more than earthworks to be watertight.
“Even though the natural clay will leak some, it will hold enough of the water,” Van Echo said. “That’s how Bresler was constructed and the other reservoirs around Lima.”
A new look
The total length around Williams Reservoir is 3.71 miles — roughly the distance from the Lima Mall to the Wyndham Hotel downtown. Eventually the paths, about 15 feet across, will be covered with fine crushed stone for walking and jogging. Now, they’re covered by powdered dirt that’s almost a foot deep in spots. It billows from wheel wells like a bag of flour dropped out a five-story window.
Most of the earthwork is finished now. Current work centers on pouring a concrete boat ramp (on the west side, per fisherman requests) and laying the limestone riprap, a protective layer of broken stones. The riprap will cover the spawning benches and the entire length of the inside wall.
The stone, from National Lime & Stone, will be coming by the truckload 120 times a day for 28 days. It’s a lot of stone.
The project included building a new pumping station that can draw 90 million gallons of water a day from the Auglaize River. Depending on the river’s flow, it could take up to a year for the reservoir to fill. Once it does, the city will let the reservoir sit for at least six months to allow sediment to settle out.
It’s difficult to describe how incredible a view it is, looking out over the top of unfilled Williams to the crystal-blue Bresler a mile away.
Even Van Echo, with a decade-plus of construction behind him, is sometimes awestruck.
“I love to go out and look around and see what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “It’s the fun part of my job, building something for a community like Lima that you know they’re going to use for years and years.”