When the Columbia Canal broke: How a 124-year-old canal failed

When the Columbia Canal broke: How a 124-year-old canal failed

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It held firm for 124 years north of Gervais Street, but it was no match for a 1,000-year flood. A month later, experts say it will probably take yet another year to fix the failed section of the Columbia Canal.

"You know we will work to that end as much as possible, but ultimately we have to get back to the point that we rebuilt the levee and it's a safe structure and to try to not have this type of event again," said Joey Jaco, City of Columbia utilities director.

The event, which brought 16 inches of rain in a single day, forced what may have been an unprecedented volume of water into the channel. The surge found a weak spot on the levee and smashed through into the Congaree River.

The location of the break was not a surprise to Robert Busbee. For decades, the longtime photographer for the City's fire department has collected clippings, pictures and facts on the canal and the old Columbia Mills textile plant where he worked much of his life. The levee, he says, gave way under the foundation of the mill's original and historic hydroelectric station.

With the floodwaters gone, the lower walls of the first remote facility to power a textile mill are now fully exposed.

"And all of a sudden here it is. Like Atlantis raised from the dead. And here's history standing right in front of it. The first thing I thought -- photograph it," Busbee said.

RELATED: See photos of the collapsed canal.

Columbia utility officials didn't have much time for history as the crisis unfolded.

With the rain tailing off, a sudden drop in the canal water supply threatened the City's ability to fill its reservoir at Riverfront Park – potentially cutting off service to almost 200,000 customers.

Water Works Superintendent Clint Shealy and his staff had to move fast.

"Fortunately, we do planning exercises and certainly had not envisioned something of this magnitude," said Shealy.

The City, private contractors and the National Guard worked around the clock to block the canal flow by dropping sandbags from helicopters to bolster the levee and building a temporary rock dam below the water works complex. That would keep the canal level up and raw water flowing into the treatment plant.

"It was a painfully slow process and even, you know, dropping rock off of the bridge is ultimately how we quickly -- even though it wasn't very quick, it did make it quicker for us," Jaco said.

But the dam building project led to another problem. Water, redirected by the partially completed barrier, carved out another huge chunk of the levee. This weakened the canal wall further and undercut utility poles supporting electrical lines for downtown Columbia.

"Power service was never in jeopardy," said Keller Kissam of SCE&G. "But the redundancy of that service that we have for the City of Columbia, as the capital city, it was limited down to one feed during the course of this situation."

"It contributed to the additional erosion issues that we see on the levee across from us here," Jaco said. "But we had to do what we had to do to get to the other side to make the ultimate repair.

Back at waterworks, the staff brought in 15 additional pumps and created a network of temporary pipelines from the canal and river. They are still there today and some will remain well into November.

"Through our training we know that panic doesn't help resolve the situation," Shealy said. "So we remained calm. We put our plans into action."

Jaco said the levee will have to be restored, maybe with some modifications. He said the city's recent investments in infrastructure upgrades at the waterworks plant and elsewhere may have prevented the flooding from leaving even more damage.

"Those improvements that we've made over the past few years really helped us in this event," Jaco said.

"It was a watershed event that caused the issues across our service territory," Kissam said. "And I think you can't look at just one particular instance and try to assign it to that. It was 16 to 20 inches of rainfall that went across our service territory and even beyond."

The City said the canal is inspected in its entirety six times a year with results reported to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The last inspection was on Aug. 14, just seven weeks before the flood.

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