Columbia Canal Rebuild Could Be Years Away

Aug 29, 2017

During the 2015 floods, the Columbia Canal breached at the Congaree River. It took the National Guard and a team of engineers days to build a temporary dam and secure the city’s water supply. In the months that followed, the City of Columbia began considering how to rebuild the canal and make improvements, a process that is still ongoing. Multiple agencies are involved in the process of assessing what to do to repair the Columbia Canal, taking all factors into account, such as the canal’s historical significance, the opportunity for sustainable energy, and the city’s need for an efficient and reliable water source. South Carolina Public Radio's Laura Hunsberger talks with Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who says the city is still a few years out from being able to start work on repairing the canal. Making a decision on a plan is just the first of many steps the city must take.

From the Reporter's Desk...

To learn more about the history of the Columbia Canal, I attended an informational tour at Riverfront Park, led by Park Ranger Karen Kustafik. (Find information about future park tours when available at http://columbiasc.gov/calendar.)

Kustafik explains that the City of Columbia settled where it is because of its position at the meeting point of the Saluda River and the Broad River, which feed into the Atlantic-bound Congaree River. As the inland limit of navigation, the city had potential for transportation of goods to and from the coast. In order to better organize commerce, George Washington proposed the idea that all the rivers could link together by means of canal (inspired by Europe), connecting river basin to river basin.

South Carolina's first canal was the Santee Canal. In 1820s, the state legislature appropriated a million dollars to build the Mills Blanding Canal. Well exceeding the budget, the project was a huge investment in infrastructure. This first canal opened in 1824 but was defunct by 1945. Kastafik says much of what remained of the canal was obliterated when the interstate was built. Read more about the history here.

Photo from the Library of Congress of the Columbia Canal hydro plant, which remained operational until the 2015 floods.
Credit Historic American Engineering Record, C., Columbia Water Power Company, South Carolina Electric & Gas Company & Southern Railway. (1968) Columbia Canal & Power Plant, Waterfront of Broad River, Columbia, Richland County, SC. / Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sc0759/.

The canal we know today is the 1891 canal, which was redesigned to serve as an industrial power source. The first hydro-power plant was built in 1984 and the second, successful hydro plant was built in 1896. Implementing a hydroelectric plant was a major accomplishment for the city, because it was the first time manufacturing could be separated from the power source. The 1986 hydro plant could generate 10 megawatts of power and was operational up until the 2015 floods. Kustafik points out that the original 1948 hydro plant was the site of the canal's breach during the floods.

Kustafik says that as the city moves forward and decides how to repair the canal, one option is to resource the water back out onto the river. The earthen levee in the dam is classified as high hazard, not for risk of life but for the loss of municipal water supply that would occur. Yet to be determined is whether the city will rebuild the dam as it was, with the hydro power plant intact, or make changes to the canal that would decommission the plant. It's not very profitable in modern times, but it may be worth preserving for its historical significance. If the city pulled water from the Broad River instead of the canal, however, this would eliminate the problem of a high-hazard levee. While the temporary dam is holding up fine, another breach upstream of the water system intake point could cause major problems for Columbia's water supply. It's a tough decision for a city already tasked with significant repairs to the wastewater system. South Carolina Public Radio will continue to follow this story as it develops.