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$100 million in repairs on the way for the Columbia Canal, but the finished product is years away

Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 6:52 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Tens of millions of dollars in repairs are on the way to the Columbia Canal six years after the historic 2015 flood that brought 20 inches of rain to parts of the Midlands.

“I remember looking at that level and seeing just a very rapid drop on the trend line and thinking, well that can’t be right. We’ve lost 5 or 6 feet of water level in our canal that can’t be right,” said Assistant City Manager for Columbia Water, Clint Shealy.

Shealy described being stationed at the plant overnight on October 5th and watching the unthinkable unfold.

“I grabbed a flashlight and walked down to the intake and it would literally take your breath away to see how the level had dropped and had dropped so quickly,” he said. “It’s a crisis at the magnitude that we had not anticipated in any of our emergency planning scenarios to that date. The loss of the canal system … the complete breach and failure of that was something that we had not anticipated and none of my predecessors had anticipated that.”

In the early morning hours of October 5th, 2015, a breach of the Columbia canal threatened the drinking water for thousands across the Midlands. In the days after that, South Carolina National Guardsmen created temporary fixes from the air. First, they dropped sandbags. Then came the rock dam. That was supposed to be a temporary fix. Six years later, it still serves as the critical piece of infrastructure protecting the integrity of the canal.

“Yeah it’s still there operating for us,” Shealy said. “We did not think it would be here six years later.”

In the six years since that day, Shealy said agreeing with FEMA on the dollar amount for the repairs has been the biggest stalling factor.

“We were worlds apart in terms of agreeing on the extent of damage and the dollars. The scope of work translates into real dollars that somebody’s gotta pay to repair this damage,” Shealy said.

The breach of the canal is one part of a three-part puzzle. When the flood happened in 2015, city workers couldn’t close the headgates that connect the Broad River to the canal due to excess debris. That allowed for a massive influx of water into the canal. Once workers cleared the way to close them in the wake of the flood, they only reopened one gate. It’s the only one that’s open today.

“We have a project to replace each of those twelve headgates .. that’s gonna give us much better control and modernize that ability to control the flow coming into our canal system,” Shealy said.

Shealy said the city hopes to bid on the headgate project by the early part of 2022 and begin construction over the summer. The city received an $8 million Community Development Block grant for that project. The second project will be to build a standalone intake in the Broad River just across from the Canal Treatment Plant that could pump directly to the treatment plant in case of an emergency. That’s a $45 million dollar investment, partially funded by a $32 million grant. It’s still under design and about two years away from the starting line. The last major piece will be to fill the hole and repair the infamous breach.

That’s a $42-45 million project all funded by FEMA or state EMD money. That project is still three to four years away.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Shealy said. “Construction is gonna be difficult. These are major civil works projects.”

By the 10 year anniversary of the flood, Shealy said he hopes they’ll be celebrating the completion of all three projects. Since the flood, operations have changed. The canal level is kept 6 feet lower than the day of the breach, the city is not generating hydroelectric power and only one of those 12 headgates is operable.

“This has really made us think differently about catastrophic events,” Shealy said.

All three projects will cost roughly $100 million.

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