FEMA Grant to Repair Flood-Wrecked Columbia Canal

Oct 15, 2020

Five years ago, the biggest flood in memory wreaked havoc on the Midlands when about 20 inches of rain fell in the area Oct. 4, 2015.  The so-called "thousand-year rain" broke dams, swelled creeks to overflowing  and flooded hundreds of homes and businesses, and some people have yet to fully recover from that event.

Public utilities also were damaged.  A very visible example is the Columbia Canal, near the point where the Broad and Saluda rivers join to form the Congaree River.  The canal provides the city with half its drinking water.  Assistant City Manager Clint Shealy remembers when the flood waters broke through the canal's embankment, spilling its waters into the river.

"The flow coming from the Broad River was so great, and we were unable to contain that flow within our canal.  The level in the canal overtopped the earthen embankment," and quickly eroded it away, said Shealy.  "So we had a breach in our canal of between 80 and 100 feet." 

"So when the breach occurred and the river dropped down," continued Columbia Special Projects Administrator Gregory Tucker, "it basically prevented us from feeding the water to the water plant at the canal.  So thus it affected a tremendous amount of the city's water customers' ability to get water."

Shealy said a temporary fix was built upstream from the breach.  "We started constructing a rock dam perpendicular to the flow of water that would basically impound the water within the canal and give us a pool that we could pump out of with our normal intake pumps."  The temporary dam is still in place, but the city has long wished to replace it with a permanently repaired canal embankment.

At last, after five years of haggling with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), the agency has granted the city the funds to make the repairs to the canal and its also-damaged hydroelectric power station, located beside the Gervais Street bridge.   According to Tucker - who will oversee the repair project - FEMA at first didn't accept the city's damage claims.

"We basically presented our findings to FEMA, and then you go through the process of ultimately proving that the damage was related to the storm and not just wear over the life of the canal," Tucker said.  "It's not something that FEMA looks at all the time, like a flooded house."  Because of the agency's lack of experience with canals and water treatment facilities, it decided to bring in a third party consultant who did have expertise in that area.  Tucker said that was a break for the city.  "The third party technical consultant agreed with 99 percent of what we were asking for."

The consultant's advice broke the years-long logjam between the city and FEMA, and the agency granted Columbia roughly $42 million to make the repairs, but that figure is flexible, said Shealy.  "What's important is, we agreed on a scope of damage" to be repaired.  "So if the work is designed and it comes in at $35 million, then FEMA will cover $35 million.  If it comes in at $45 or $50 million, then that would be covered.  That would repair the damage to the canal, the hydroelectric generating station (from which the city makes electricity that it sells back to the power company to lower its own electric bill) and return it to normal operation prior to October of 2015." 

The work will be done in phases, the first of which involves doing an archaeological survey to make sure the repairs won't damage or obliterate any cultural resources such as artifacts of Indians who once may have lived or worked along the river.  Tucker said an ancient canoe was discovered in the area in the early 1980s, alerting scientists to the possibility of prior cultures along the riverbank.  

So, when will Midlands residents see the canal fixed and back in action?  According to Shealy, the archaeological study "is the predecessor to the design of the improvements - the design permitting, bidding and construction.  So when you line all those things up, I think you're still looking at a four-year time frame to be back into operation of the canal and the hydroelectric generating facility." 

The repairs, of course, will be made to 21st-century standards rather than those of the 19th century, when the canal was originally built.  Shealy and Tucker said that after a nearly decade-long wait, the repairs will leave the canal more resilient and in a better position to serve the city than it was in 2015.