Rubberized dam breaks at Tempe Town Lake


by Catherine Holland

Posted on July 21, 2010 at 8:58 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 21 at 9:13 PM

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tempe Town Lake is down to a depth of about 3 feet -- less in some areas -- after one of the rubber bladders that make up the dam burst, allowing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to rush downstream into the normally dry river bed.

Authorities said Tempe Town Lake could lose up to 75 percent of its water. Mike Reichling of the Tempe Fire Department said the man-made lake, which can hold up to 1 billion gallons of water, will likely remain at its current depth until the dam can be fixed.

One of the four 16-foot tall rubber bladders, which are located near Arizona State University, broke shortly before 10 p.m. Residents in the area reported hearing a loud bang. That's when water started pouring downstream. Several people rushed outside to see what was happening.

"We were about five minutes away from the dam when we heard this giant 'boom' noise," said Maisy Henderson-Bowden. "It was almost like a sonic boom."

"There was just a huge explosion-sounding noise," said Maureen Howell. "We looked at the dam and it just exploded outwards and there was water coming over, huge waves. It was coming through with a lot of force."

"It was like a gigantic waterfall," said Luke Henderson. "It was crazy."

Emergency crews were on the scene quickly.

"We responded immediately, put our plan into action," Reichling said.

Police officers scoured both sides of the river, both on the ground and from the air, searching for anybody who might have been caught in the onslaught of water. It's not uncommon for homeless people to camp in the river bed when it's dry. Nobody was found.

"We have actually exercised this scenario many times, going through our preparations for something like this to happen," Reichling said.

While a flash-flood warning was issued because of the situation, no injuries were reported and no structures were threatened by the rushing water. That warning was allowed to expire at 5:30 a.m.

It's not known yet what caused the bladder to break, but Tempe City Manager Charlie Meyer said police determined there was no criminal activity involved in the dam failure.

Reichling said the dam's bladders are old.

"I appears that this was just a natural occurrence," Reichling explained, saying normal wear and tear is likely be to blame.

The bladders were already scheduled for replacement this year; new ones are being manufactured. Tempe spokeswoman Kris Baxter-Ging said the city is working to speed up that process.

Mayor Hugh Hallman said Tempe Town Lake will probably be closed until the fall.