Omaha, Neb. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District operates and maintains six mainstem dams on the upper Missouri River: Gavins Point, Fort Randall, Big Bend, Oahe, Garrison and Fort Peck. The dams benefit nearby communities in many ways, such as flood risk management, recreation, navigation, irrigation, water supply, water quality, fish and wildlife conservation and hydropower production. At the heart of each of these dams are teams of skilled and passionate district employees.
Chuck Stoddard is a senior shift controller who works in the control room at the Gavins Point Dam which sits on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. Stoddard previously served six years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear machinist mate on aircraft carriers. He also worked in the commercial nuclear industry and held different engineering jobs for insurance companies before joining the Omaha District in 2011.
Stoddard’s best day at work is when he and his team test new equipment. As technology advances, the dam, which was built in the 1950s, is upgraded with modernized digital equipment.
“I got involved with testing and it's a pretty unique thing to see,” he said. “Any day that we are testing something new would be my best day.”
Stoddard says that the most unique aspect of his job is essentially having the ability to control the Missouri River.
“If you think about it, changes we make affect the level in the Mississippi River, and I’ve been told it affects the river level all the way back to Pittsburgh,” he said.
Orlando Maldonado is a construction representative for quality assurance at Fort Randall Dam’s powerhouse in South Dakota. He has worked at the Omaha District for about a year and a half after spending a combined 25 years doing construction inspection for the Department of Transportation in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Maldonado’s day-to-day involves checking in with contractors to ensure they are completing tasks correctly through inspections and walkthroughs.
“I drive an hour to work every day, and when I hit a certain point and see the dam, it just floors me how huge it is. So, every day is a great day to come to Fort Randall,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado expressed that the variety of work is what sets USACE apart from other jobs. He explained how working at Fort Randall feels like it’s a city, with different elements of public works such as water or electricity. Working at the dam, he gets to experience a little bit of everything, with no two days being the same.
Maldonado said he knew the job was for him from the day he showed up.
“If anybody comes to visit Fort Randall, you hit the corner at the visitor center and boom, it just hits you,” he said. “It’s just awesome to work here.”
John Mills has been a senior powerplant mechanic for nearly ten years and has been working with the Omaha District at Big Bend Dam, South Dakota for almost 22 years. In his current role, Mills ensures his team has the necessary resources stocked to complete their job. He also makes sure tasks are being carried out safely and on time. Mills acts as a mentor and mediator at times, communicating with his team to make sure they are comfortable and prepared for anything.
“It’s all our jobs to know one another, get along with one another, and understand where other people might be coming from,” Mills said. “It’s a lot of listening to other people’s needs and not just my own.”
When asked about his best day, Mills recalled a day when a unit at the powerplant went down. Working expeditiously, his team was able to remove and replace a faulty motor in only a day and a half.
“I took a lot of pride in that,” he said. “It took a lot of work, and everybody was working all four cylinders and we got it done. That is what I feel is the best thing, when we accomplish great things.”
Mills came to Big Bend Dam after time in the Navy, both active-duty and reserve, and various federal jobs that required frequent moves. Mills promised his wife that he would get her as close to her home in Milbank, South Dakota, as possible. Taking the job at Big Bend, John was able to fulfill that promise.
“I just knew that this was what I wanted,” he said. “I didn't want big cities or anything like that anymore - I just wanted a peaceful place.”
Currently, Mills is preparing for retirement. “I think they're all ready for the old man to go” he said jokingly. Mills explained that the Big Bend team is tight knit community. “When you get teams like this, there's not much you can’t do. I'm going to miss all these guys, just thinking about it gets me a little choked up.”
Pat Feiock is the chief natural resource specialist at the Oahe Project and has been working with the district for five years.
Feiock is responsible for the day-to-day recreation and land management operations along Lake Oahe from Bismarck, North Dakota to the Oahe Dam north of Pierre, South Dakota.
“The Natural Resource Section has been an exciting job as you get to do different things each day you come to work,” he said. “From one day being able to be out patrolling Lake Oahe by boat to helping do budget builds to improve areas for the public to use.”
To Feiock, one of the best aspects of his job is the satisfaction he gets from working multiple projects, seeing their progression and ultimate outcome.
“I was lucky enough to start with the Corps of Engineers as a summer student and work my way up the ladder to the position I am in today,” he said.
Ryan Keller is a journeyman mechanic in the powerhouse at Garrison Dam in North Dakota, working with the Omaha District for two years. His typical day starts off with assessing, preparing and executing current work orders.
When asked about his best day, Keller said, “there's a lot of best days.” He explained that every time a project is completed, he feels rewarded and proud.
“When you finish a project and you get to see the overall completion of it, you kind of reflect on everything you put into it, and it just makes you feel a little better,” Keller said.
To Keller, what sets working at Garrison Dam apart from other jobs is having a view of the direct effect on Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. He explained that the dam provides both recreation and reliable electricity to many people. He also remarked that the lake offers some of the best fishing in the area.
“Once in a while we’ll get to see some people catch a fish out there,” he said.
When Keller started working at Garrison Dam, he had to complete a year-long training program to learn and familiarize himself in the intricacies of the dam.
“You’ve got to really spend a lot of time in the books, even though you just want to go out and help all the crew out,” he said. “When you finally complete that training program and you can go out on your own and help, you just feel more a part of the team.”
As a North Dakota native who studied powerplants and HVAC mechanics, he always held Garrison Dam to a high standard.
“Being from the power industry, this was one of the places that a lot of people want to be at,” Keller said. “And, you know, it’s just a dream to be here.”
Kerry Capdeville is a senior powerplant mechanic at Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Capdeville began working at Fort Peck in 2011 and was recently promoted to his current role in October. His responsibilities include working on and preparing for work orders by conducting maintenance or proactively stocking and ordering parts. Capdeville has four years of prior military in the U.S. Navy where he served as a boiler technician.
To Capdeville, what sets working at Fort Peck Dam apart from working anywhere else is the diversity of duties that can be done on any given day. He explained that while some days focuses on generators, other days he may be working on pumps, governors, outside maintenance, or assisting in the dam’s crane program.
“It can change from day to day, you’ve got to be kind of flexible,” he said.
When asked the moment he knew he made the right decision to work at Fort Peck, Capdeville said, “just after being here a couple weeks! This is a pretty nice place to work. These guys are great, we have a great mechanic’s shop and we get along great.”
These professionals are just a few of USACE’s dedicated staff members who are committed to the safe operation of Omaha District dam projects that support communities throughout the Upper Missouri River Basin.
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