Two of Alabama Power’s unique generation facilities are celebrating double-nickel birthdays in 2016.
Smith Dam, on the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River, is the company’s only earthen dam. Weiss Dam, in northeast Alabama near Centre, is really “two” dams, with an extra set of floodgates and a canal diverting a 20-mile section of the Coosa River 3 miles to a higher level, providing more water to flow through generating turbines at the main dam.
Two things both reservoirs have in common: They were finished in 1961 and support great fishing. Weiss Lake bills itself as the “Crappie Capital of the World,” while the deep, cold waters of Smith attract national bass fishing tournaments.
But they also combine to provide a crucial safety net for cities and towns downstream.
“I would look no further than our most recent heavy rains at Christmas of 2015,” said Herbie Johnson, general manager of hydroelectric dams. “Smith and Weiss are at the upper end of the basins. They are the front line of flood control for the Warrior and upper Coosa. If not for these dams, the damage from the heavy rain event would have been extensive in Tuscaloosa and Gadsden.”
Wedged between Walker, Cullman and Winston counties in north central Alabama, Smith is one of the largest earth-and-rock-filled dams in the eastern United States. It’s the deepest of Alabama Power’s reservoirs, with an average depth of 264 feet.
The structure is named for Lewis Smith, president of the company from 1952 to 1957.
“The lake is one of the cleanest in the Southeast, and provides recreation, including hosting the top fishing tournaments,” said Roger Treglown, president of the Smith Lake Civic Association.
Smith is on the Alabama Bass Trail and attracts national events like the Wal-Mart Fishing League Worldwide tour.
“We’ve been able to host local, state, regional and national fishing tournaments, which in turn has created an economic engine for our county, not to mention the exposure our community gets from these tournaments,” said Linda Lewis, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County.
The cool rushing waters in the tailrace below Smith Dam provide one of a handful of places east of the Mississippi River where anglers can catch rainbow trout, stocked monthly by Alabama Power.
“This lake is a huge economic generator for local businesses in the three-county area,” said Eddie Hand, publisher of Smith Lake Living magazine. “I’m not talking about just the mom-and-pop businesses, but those like mine: boat dock companies, shoreline maintenance, the construction industry.”
Hand said Smith was “off the map” 15 years ago, mostly known as a lake house and fishing destination by Alabamians. But national advertisement of land and house auctions opened the publicity floodgates. A $50-per-foot lot in 1999 shot to $150 per foot prior to the 2008 recession, he said. Those same lots now run from $150 to $200 per foot and the population boom continues around the lake.
Weiss, meanwhile, is responsible for most of the $16 million economic impact from tourism in Cherokee County, said Thereasa Hulgan, executive director of the county chamber of commerce.
“While we have other outdoor adventures that attract visitors to our area, we believe Weiss Lake is the No. 1 tourist attraction,” Hulgan said.
Fishing guide Mark Collins, president of the Weiss Lake Improvement Association, states it more emphatically.
“The lake is the whole cash cow for Cherokee County,” Collins said. “Other than farming, this would be a dirt-poor community if not for this lake.”
Collins — who operates Mark Collins Guide Service at Little River Marina and Lodge — says Weiss hosts 140 to 150 bass tournaments a year and three or four crappie tournaments annually.
But the Weiss economic footprint is expanding beyond fishing, as stumps and trees underwater, with time, have deteriorated, making the lake more conducive to skiing and boating.
“We’ve got a whole new class of people who are recreational boaters,” he said.
Longtime observer Melvyn Salter — former Cherokee County Probate Court judge, County Commission chairman and pastor of Centre First Baptist Church — says the county “is becoming a retirement, resort and agricultural community because we don’t have a lot of major industry.
“We have thousands of people every year come here for crappie and bass tournaments. It’s hard to put the amount of dollars and cents on what Weiss Lake has come to mean to our county.”
Named after Ferdinand C. Weiss — vice president of engineering and construction and an Alabama Power board member until his death in 1959 — the dam has drawn praise from environmentalists and conservationists for the 2014 restoration of water flow to the original 20-mile Coosa River bed.
As part of the federal relicensing of Weiss Dam, the flow is expected to revitalize the endangered southern clubshell mussel and other aquatic life, while giving canoers and kayakers a new place to float their boats.
“It used to be dead,” Collins said. “But I’ve seen more kayakers in that area. I’ve heard a lot of comments from fishermen along there catching crappie and catfish.”