Located in the San Gabriel Mountains, the Littlerock Dam was originally built to supply the water needs of the agricultural town of Littlerock, California. Designed by noted dam architect John S. Eastwood, construction of the dam finished in 1924. Noted for its interesting design, the Littlerock Dam has been mired in controversy almost since day one.
The most fascinating, and indeed, most controversial, feature of this dam is its fairly unique multiple arch design. Instead of being a monolithic arch like most dams, the Littlerock Dam is a collection of smaller arches, giving the appearance of being part of an ancient Roman aqueduct. This design, however, is much less stable than the more traditional single-arch dam, leading to decades of debate.
Concern for the integrity of California's waterways began shortly after the St. Francis Dam disaster in 1928. The subsequent hearings led to the inspection of all of California's dams and the discovery that the Littlerock Dam would be unable to withstand a major earthquake from the nearby San Andreas Fault. A 1932 ruling by the State Division of Safety of Dams ordered that the dam be repaired so that it could handle such a quake. The resulting debates led to the repair project being put off for over sixty years.
Details on the debates are sketchy at best, but like many such debates, caused a fairly useful project to be buried in a subcommittee, and subsequently forgotten. Interest in retrofitting the dam resurfaced briefly in 1966, when a second study by the State Division of Safety of Dams required that the dam be retrofitted. Like the first study, this one was soon forgotten as well. The subject of repairing the dam became an item that was brought up from time to time, debated briefly, then sent back into obscurity. Discussion finally turned to action in 1987, when plans were drawn up for the retrofitting and rehabilitation of the Littlerock Dam.
The wheels were set in motion to give the dam the seismic upgrades which were decades overdue. Plans were drawn up to bring the dam up to seismic standards, raise it by 12 feet, and restore the nearby recreation area. After environmental studies were completed, construction began in 1993 and lasted for two years. The downstream face was buttressed by several tons of concrete, hiding the distinctive multiple arch appearance forever, the upstream side was reinforced with shotcrete, and the water delivery system was upgraded to allow for greater control and flow of the water.
The dam facility was reopened in 1995 with much improved facilities. Along with the repairs to the dam itself, the boat launch, campground, and picnic facilities were also improved, leading to a much nicer facility. It had become a modern facility, ready to take on any shaking from the nearby fault. In my opinion, though, it is lacking the feel it had before the retrofitting.
Though impressive, the retrofitted dam does not personally strike me the way the dam did before the project. Yes, the lake is gorgeous, and the fact that it won't come tumbling down in an earthquake is a definite plus, but it's missing the charm of the multiple archways; it looks like every other dam. The old dam had feeling, it was a work of art. The modernizations took away its artistic appeal, and left it as just a soulless piece of concrete holding back a body of water.