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Six Years After Historic Flood, Columbia Canal Prepares for Repairs

The Columbia Canal, partially empty for six years since the great flood of 2015, is on the verge of repairs to strengthen the city's water supply.
Tut Underwood
SC Public Radio
The Columbia Canal, partially empty for six years since the great flood of 2015, is on the verge of repairs to strengthen the city's water supply.

The City of Columbia has the financing in place to repair damage to the Columbia Canal wrought by the historic flood of 2015.

Six years ago this week, the skies dumped what was termed a “thousand year rain” on the Midlands of South Carolina. The storm wrought havoc all the way to the coast, and its effects are still being felt. One public facility that has yet to recover is the Columbia Canal, which supplies the capital city’s drinking water.

The 2015 flood breached the canal’s embankment, emptying its water into the Congaree River and shutting down a hydroelectric plant the city has long used to generate power. A temporary dam has kept the city in water since the flood, but after haggling with FEMA for years, water officials say repairs are finally on the horizon.

Assistant City Manager for Water Clint Shealy used the analogy of a three-legged stool to explain the repair work needed to restore a sound water system. “The first piece of course is rebuilding our dike, our embankment, getting the hydroelectric station back operating, producing good, green power for us.”

The next piece, according to Director of Utilities Joey Jaco, is repair to the headgates, a system of 12 gates which controls the water coming into the canal.

W”e’re looking at doing some structural stabilization to the structure itself, and we’re looking at replacing all 12 gates, with actual controlled water coming into the canal itself,” said Jaco, “and that’s about an eight million dollar project. Looking at starting construction on that sometime late next year, early 2023 at the latest.”

That $8 million will come from a grant from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), said Shealy, adding that the third leg of the stool is a new project to strengthen the system against future disasters. “What I’m most excited about here recently is a project to build an alternate water supply intake directly in the Broad River, so that if something were to happen to our canal system, whether it be our headgates, overtopping of the embankment, seismic event, any of those things…what happened in Ocober. of 2015 could potentially happen again. So we want to harden ourselves and be in a better position to handle that.”

Jaco echoed the importance of the new project to safeguard the city’s water supply. “The canal itself is a historic structure, it’s got a lot of significant for the city of Columbia. It provides hydro power, green power, but it also is our primary water source for our population of over 400,000 people every day. It’s critical that we keep the water supply through the canal, but really to our water plant.”

The dike repairs’ price of $42.8 million will be 90% paid by FEMA, with the rest coming from the state, so ratepayers will not be affected, said Shealy. He also was excited that this alternate supply project, too, was mostly covered by a FEMA grant called a BRIC grant (Building Resilient Infrastructure for Communities). “What’s most exciting is, out of over a thousand applications we were ranked fifth nationally for that grant,” he said. “It is a 75 per cent grant for a $45 million project, I think it’s $32 some-odd million, that forms the third leg of the stool.”

Work is expected to begin on the headgates in about a year or a little longer, and the entire project is expected to be complete in four to five years. Shealy said it took so long to get to this point because of tough negotiations with FEMA, but it was worth it to get it right and secure every dollar possible for the city. He said the project is an example of building back better in anticipation of storms to come.

“It appears the frequency of high-intensity rain events is ramping up. More intense storm events coming to us. And we’ve got to be prepared for that. So we’re trying to think ahead, where we’ll be in really good shape for the next 50-100 years from a water supply standpoint.”

Because what happened in 2015 could happen again, Shealy said it’s incumbent on public servants to recognize the city’s vulnerabilities and to strengthen its infrastructure to protect future generations.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.