Lafayette Reservoir retrofit could be the end for a longtime landmark

(Photo illustration by Glenn Gehlke/Bay City News Foundation)

A signature feature of the landscape at the Lafayette Reservoir, the iconic tower familiar to hikers, dog-walkers, recreational fishers, cyclists, and cub scouts looking for native critters, may be on the chopping block.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District briefed the Lafayette City Council recently on its plans to lower the 170-feet-tall tower on the northeast end of the reservoir by 40 feet as part of a safety retrofit.

The tower was finished in 1929 — a few years before the reservoir was completed in 1933 and opened for recreation in 1966. The tower and the conduits at its base function together as a spillway and outlet to control the reservoir levels.

The utility says on its website, “In the event of an earthquake, the tower is likely to sustain significant damage due to the lack of steel reinforcement in the concrete, and the conduits at the base of the tower would sustain damage from bending forces.”

The tower is 40 feet taller than it should be because engineers decided the nearby dam should be lower than originally planned, after a first version of the dam collapsed. EBMUD says it doesn’t meet modern seismic design standards and would bend and break in an earthquake.

The conduits at the base of the tower could also become damaged. The tower and conduits would not be able to function as an outlet and spillway, which presents safety concerns for the dam, especially in heavy rains.

The observation tower at the Lafayette Reservoir was constructed in 1929, four years before the reservoir itself was completed. The East Bay Municipal Utility District wants to lower the tower by 40 feet to help it better withstand the forces of a major earthquake. (Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News)

Losing a landmark

The California Division of Safety of Dams, the state agency that regulates dam safety, wants EBMUD to build a lower tower and add an onshore valve operating system to improve response time in an emergency.

Community members have expressed reservations about giving up 40 feet of tower, which can be seen for miles around.

“Hopefully we’ll find a balance of aesthetic concerns expressed by the community with the critical seismic considerations,” EBMUD board member John Coleman told the council at its June 12 meeting.

EMBUD has said the DSOD prefers a shorter tower, though there is some wiggle room when it comes to the shorter tower’s design.

The city has put together an advisory board of experts to come up with ways to keep the tower bigger before a scheduled community meeting on July 26.

“I look forward to hearing from them and I think they’re prepared to work quickly so they can get back to us before the community meeting on the 26th,” said Mayor Carl Anduri.

“This is very important to the community, so I’d like to get the input of our community members who, from what I understand, are very well qualified in this area to get a sense of what the possibilities are.”

Work is expected to begin in spring 2024 and last approximately one year.

Construction impacts are expected to be minimal. Some parking spaces will be temporarily used to store equipment and access to the reservoir may be suspended for short periods of time during large equipment deliveries.

EBMUD says they won’t need to drain the reservoir, though minor tree work is anticipated, along with some temporary, localized widening of the access road.

More information about the seismic retrofit project can be found on EBMUD’s website.

The community meeting regarding the project will be held at 6 p.m. July 26 at Stanley Middle School in Lafayette.

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