Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Good time to go

Not that I needed much encouragement, but last night Fate gave me another good reason to head to Portugal soon. Let me explain.

I live in a nice condo that overlooks what our city, Tempe, calls the Town Lake. Tempe Town LakeTempe Town Lake actually is a formerly dry riverbed that was turned into a lake 10 years ago thanks to a visionary idea by Arizona State University architecture students back in the 1960s. Their idea was to put dams across each end of the riverbed and then fill it with water to create a lake. After years of study and planning and finally construction, the lake was created in 1999. For a decade, it has been one of Arizona’s major attractions, the site of triathalons, boat races and many recreational  activities like fishing and sailing. In short, a huge success.

But the dams necessary to keep the water in had to be built to accommodate the occasional spring floods Phoenix gets when we have a particularly wet and snowy winter in the high country upstate. To do that, the two dams actually are built of rubber that is inflated to form the necessary barrier, but deflated if the upstream water flow needs to be released. For a decade, this has worked well. But Arizona’s sun is brutal, and there were signs that the rubber dam was beginning to deteriorate from sun damage. The city, in fact, had scheduled for replacement of the dams to begin today.

Too late! Last night as I was lying in bed just about to turn off the lights, a siren we had never heard before began to wail. If I had been in Kansas (tornado country) I would have rushed to the storm cellar. As we quickly learned thanks to Twitter and news flashes on tv, the downstream dam had suddently burst a few minutes earlier. The lake, filled about 16 feet (5 meters) deep with nearly a billion gallons (about 3.7 trillion liters) of water, began to rush downstream. The sirens, which had never been used, were warning anyone downstream — particularly transients who sometimes set up encampments in the riverbed — that a flash flood was coming.

By sunrise this morning, Tempe Town Lake was nothing but soggy swampland, a few puddles of standing water that soon will dry up in the Arizona heat. Tempe Town Puddle

The mayor conceded to reporters that all the decaying vegetation and dead fish would begin to smell pretty soon, and we all expect an influx of mosquitoes and flies and other aggravating bugs. Ugh.

So, it turns out that it’s now a great time to be leaving Tempe for a few months. City officials are confident that the dams will be replaced and the lake refilled with water by November 1. I feel bad for my friends and neighbors who will be dealing with the messy period before things get back to normal. But I’ll be glad to miss all those problems. Thanks, Fate. If the dam had to break, this was the right time to do it (at least for me!)

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