The University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US, dedicated a new hydroelectric facility along the St. Joseph River on 12 September 2022. Situated beneath Seitz Park, the 2.5MW facility started generating power for the university in May and has operated at about 70% capacity based on spring and summer river levels. The state-of-the-art facility will generate an estimated 7% of electricity for the campus and offset 9700 tons of carbon dioxide annually, benefiting both the university and surrounding community.

“Developed in close collaboration with the city of South Bend and other community partners, this facility, powered by the St. Joseph River, is yet another example of Notre Dame’s ongoing commitment to sustainability — specifically, the cultivation of new and innovative sources of clean, renewable energy,” Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins said. “As the latest in a growing portfolio of green energy projects for Notre Dame, it will help us to achieve the ultimate goal of a carbon neutral campus by 2050.”

Existing dam

The project is built at South Bend and relies on the existing concrete and timber crib dam which was originally constructed in 1844. This is the third hydropower project at the dam, which included the original two-race system used to drive water wells to supply mechanical energy to early industry on both sides of the river. In the early 1900s a hydroelectric plant was built on the west race to supply the Oliver Plow Co. factory and assorted downtown facilities owned by the Oliver family.

The idea of restoring the dam to its original use as a source of hydroelectric power dates back to at least 1980, when South Bend applied for and received a licence exemption from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to develop and operate a hydro facility at Seitz Park. The plan was for a small-scale facility to power nearby Howard Park or supplement the grid. However, the combination of low global energy prices and an unfavourable regulatory environment for green energy projects in Indiana ultimately doomed the project.

“We were very interested in seeing hydroelectricity in the city because it’s a clean source of energy that reduces the community’s carbon footprint,” said Eric Horvath, Director of Public Works for the city and a Notre Dame graduate, but “it just wasn’t financially feasible.”

At risk of losing the licence exemption for lack of use, the city transferred it to Notre Dame in 2016. The city granted the university a 50-year lease to develop and operate a hydro project at Seitz Park. In exchange, the university agreed to contribute US$1million towards restoration of the park. 

As part of the original licence exemption a requirement was to preserve water rights for existing assets, including the flow of water to the fish ladder at Seitz Park, which is critical for the movement of salmon and trout both downstream and upstream from Lake Michigan to the Bodine State Fish Hatchery in Mishawaka.


Work on the project began in 2019 but was slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic and other planning and logistical hurdles. 

Planning and designing the facility was a complex task. The site is small and wedged between the river and the east race, which is now a recreational waterway. Additionally, as the original industrial site at South Bend, much debris and rubble were buried on site here and encountered during construction. 

The project team included KFI Engineers, Lawson Fisher Associates, R&R Excavating, Rieth Riley Construction, Navarre Services and Ziolkowski Construction. These design professionals, contractors, and suppliers worked collaboratively, as well as with nearby property owners, whose cooperation was necessary to not only access the site but run the transmission line north to campus. Considerable time and effort were also spent working with a number of stakeholders and regulators at the local, state and federal levels such as FERC, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, US Fish and Wildlife, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction involved 6700 cubic yards of poured and pre-cast concrete, including a series of 25,000-pound box culverts measuring 16 feet wide by 14 feet tall. The foundation alone required six feet of concrete, including a two-foot mud slab, to prevent water and moisture from undermining the foundation. The facility contains 1.1 million pounds of steel.

Construction crews drove sheeting around the entire work area including in the river at the intake and outlet of the planned facility. Dewatering followed to allow for excavations that ranged from 20 to over 40 feet below grade level to accommodate the massive tunnels needed to divert water from the river to the powerhouse, as well as the construction of a dam to support the new turbines, unearthing bricks and other debris in the process…

Apart from a small control building, the project is fully submerged allowing for the city to restore its park over the project. The scheme is capable of generating 2.5MW or enough to power between 1750-2500 homes. Power is transmitted back to the university campus approximately 2 miles north via an underground transmission line. 

Early on in the process, Paul Kempf, Assistant Vice President for Utilities And Maintenance at Notre Dame, travelled with a group of colleagues to meet with Voith Hydro in Austria. The company’s innovative StreamDiver design was determined to be best suited for the project. 

Based on the characteristics of the site, including the flow of the river and height of the dam, the consultant team of KFI Engineers and Lawson-Fisher Associates designed a ten-turbine system, each with a 250kW generator and a propeller type runner, stacked two-high across five shafts. Removable oil-free bearings allow for ease of maintenance using a launch and recovery system. 

From a purely financial perspective, the university expects a 30-year return on the project. It also hopes to use the facility for education and research. Engineering students, along with a number of Montessori and home school students, have already toured the site during construction. There is an opportunity for biology students to partner with the Department of Natural Resources on a fish study, plus an opportunity for educational signage tracing the history of the site from the 1840s to the current facility and its role as source of clean, renewable energy for Notre Dame.

IWP&DC would like to thank the University of Notre Dame for providing all the information and photos for this article.