A lot washed away in the great flood of October 2015.
The three-day downpour wreaked havoc on Columbia and the Midlands. It buckled roads, destroyed homes, walloped the city’s infrastructure and killed nine people. Many lost irreplaceable items in the disaster — their old photo albums, handwritten letters from family members, the real stuff. It was a calamitous, harrowing event.
In a lot of ways, Columbia has mostly moved on in the years since. Many homes were rehabbed or rebuilt. Government emergency plans have been bolstered and sharpened, in the event such a disaster would happen again. Earlier this year, a pair of eyesores that had long festered as reminders of the flood — the washed out blue TitleMax building on Devine Street and the wrecked yellow Title Loans building that sat across the street, perched on the bank of Gills Creek — were finally demolished.
But there remains one significant recovery task left undone, and it’s a big one: The Columbia Canal — the main source of drinking water for a massive swath of the city, including the University of South Carolina, the downtown core, numerous hospitals and Fort Jackson — has not been repaired. The 60-foot wide breach in the western levee of the canal, along the Congaree River near the State Museum, is still there, waiting to be filled. Just north of the breach, a thick rock dam — one that governmental officials scrambled to put together in the days following the flood — still stands firm, holding in the river water that is later purified at the city’s Canal Treatment Plant and piped out to the city’s water customers.
The canal — which was built in the 1890s — remains functional, but battered.
Assistant City Manager for Columbia Water Clint Shealy recalls the storm that breached the canal late on the night of Oct. 4, 2015, and into the early morning hours of Oct. 5. Several factors contributed to the breach, including the fact that operators could not get the head gates to the canal — which are along the Broad River about three miles north of the State Museum — to close completely. Shealy says debris from the storm blocked those gates, which control the inflow of water into the canal.
“More water was coming in [through the head gates], in addition to all the rain that fell in the city, and ran off in the canal naturally,” Shealy says. “So, you had the combination of a super-high river level pushing through those head gates that weren’t able to close, and the in-flow of what was falling within the city proper and running off into the canal. … There was more flow coming in than we could handle flow going out. The [water] overtopped the earthen embankment, and it’s not designed to handle that. It found a weak spot and washed out.”
In the years since the storm, the city has continued to limp along with the canal. The rock dam — which Shealy calls “very robust” — has held. All but one of the head gates at the top of the canal are inoperable, with operators controlling the inflow of water through a single gate. The hydroelectric plant at the southern end of the canal sits dormant.
For almost four years, a larger repair and revamp has remained firmly out of reach for the city, with funding for the repair gummed up in government red tape.
As it turns out, when it comes to a consensus about the cash needed to revamp Columbia’s main water source, the gulf between the city and the federal government remains almost as wide as the breach in the canal.
It’s pretty rare for Steve Benjamin get angry. The third-term Columbia mayor and national president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors is typically unflappable, ever at the ready with a measured response to a reporter’s questions.
But on a recent phone call with Free Times, the mayor couldn’t keep the testiness out of his voice when asked about the Columbia Canal. It has become a festering issue.
“I am utterly frustrated with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the federal government for their lack of responsiveness on repairing the canal,” Benjamin says. “We have crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ and it is time for the government to do what it is supposed to do in response to natural disasters.
“The people of Columbia, Lexington and Richland counties pay federal taxes faithfully every year, and in exceptional circumstances of natural disaster, FEMA and the federal government are supposed to repatriate those dollars back to taxpayers for these exact situations. They are failing to honor this relationship.”
The city has long argued that, because the canal was breached during a significant storm, FEMA should largely fund a revamp of the canal. In early April, Benjamin testified to the U.S. House Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, noting the vast disparity between what the city says it needs to repair the canal, and what the federal government has, to this point, said it would be willing to provide.
“The city estimates that repairing storm damage to the canal, including bringing it up to current standards and ensuring its resilience, will cost $169 million,” the mayor testified. “FEMA counters that most of the damage to the canal is not storm-related, arguing that it is due to regular wear and tear, and further counters that FEMA can only fund repairs for visible damage and estimates repairs for storm damage to the canal at $11 million.”
So, basically, the two sides are a whopping $158 million dollars apart.
“FEMA wants to plug the [breach in the] canal,” City Councilman Howard Duvall tells Free Times. “Our position is that our engineers tell us the three-and-a-half mile levee that makes the canal has been weakened, and that we have to fix the whole thing, not just the apparent hole.”
It briefly appeared as if funding for the canal repairs might come through Congress.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn helped spearhead an effort to get the funding into a recent disaster relief bill. The version of that bill that initially passed the U.S. House on May 10 included language that would have made way for Columbia to get the funding. However, later versions of the bill, including the one passed by the U.S. Senate and, ultimately, the full Congress, did not contain the canal money. President Donald Trump signed the $19 billion disaster relief bill on June 6.
Shealy says, when canal funding initially cleared the House, city officials’ hopes were high. He says he was “bitterly disappointed” that it was omitted from subsequent versions of the bill.
Efforts continue. City officials have been discussing the canal with the state’s congressmen, particularly those whose districts touch Columbia, in an effort to get help with FEMA. Stami Williams, a spokeswoman for longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, says the congressman knows about the city’s needs.
“Congressman Wilson is aware and agrees that the response from FEMA has been disappointing and a swift rebuilding of the Columbia Canal is critical,” Williams said. “His staff recently met with Columbia Mayor Pro Tem Tameika Isaac Devine and members of the Columbia City Council on this issue and other federal priorities for the City of Columbia. He worked with Rep. Clyburn in pushing for federal funding for rebuilding the Columbia Canal in the recent disaster supplemental.”
It’s a curious position for Wilson to take, as he voted against the initial House version of the disaster relief bill, which contained money for the canal. It passed the House by a 257-150 count. At the time, the congressman put out a statement calling the bill a “partisan measure.” (Wilson voted for the later, final version of the bill, after it returned from the Senate without canal funding.)
Devine says she and others from the city traveled to Washington to try to leverage the congressional delegation’s help in loosening FEMA’s grip on more canal repair money.
“We were kind of hopeful, especially with the help and support of our delegation, particularly Senator [Lindsey] Graham and Congressman Clyburn, that we would be included in the most recent disaster relief bill,” Devine says. “Of course, that was unsuccessful. That is disappointing for us. I think we are going to keep trying, and we are hopeful we can do something. But still, it’s disappointing.
“For us, as a city, at this point the level of investment that is necessary to fix the canal is not something we have readily available and accessible. If it has to be solely on our own resources, we are looking at a significant amount of time to be able to address it. That’s an untenable situation. That’s an option none of us want to acknowledge, so we are just going to keep trying.”
Benjamin has written to Republicans such as Wilson, Graham and Gov. Henry McMaster in an effort to get them to capitalize on their relationships with Trump in effort to get more federal money for the canal repair.
“I respectfully urge you to do all you can, including making a personal request to the President, to initiate funding for repairs to the Columbia Canal and bring this process to a satisfactory close as soon as possible,” Benjamin wrote in a March 27 letter to Wilson.
For his part, Shealy says city water department staff will stay the course in trying to bridge the funding gap with FEMA.
“We are hopeful that they’ll agree with us, and that we’ll be able to get a portion of the funding, if not all the funding, that we believe that we are due.”
Bill Stangler feels a bit out of the loop when it comes to the Columbia Canal.
Stangler heads up Congaree Riverkeeper, the watchdog organization that keeps a close eye on issues that face the rivers and streams in the Columbia area. For nearly four years, he’s wondered what will come of the roughed-up Columbia Canal, which runs for three miles alongside the Congaree and up into the Broad.
The river advocate says it has been a while since he’s had a good feel for what’s in store for the canal’s future.
“From my end, I’d like to hear from the city what the plan is and what’s going on,” Stangler says. “We get bits and pieces of information every now and then. We’ve been waiting for a while, as a community here in Columbia, to know what, truly, is going on. I know there are a lot of issues with the funding, with FEMA money, with this and that. It’s complicated, I know. But it’s about time for the city to come and tell us ‘Here’s what the next steps are, here’s what the hold-up is, and here’s what we are doing to get through this.’”
Shealy says, assuming the funding issue eventually gets settled, there are several things the city would like to do. One is, of course, repairing the breach in the canal. Reinforcing the three-mile earthen levee also is on the docket.
And Shealy says the city is exploring the idea of constructing an alternate water source — a back-up source, of sorts — along an area river. He says the city has a site in mind, but insisted it is still too early to disclose its location.
“Right now, we are fully reliant on an older canal,” Shealy says. “Here we are right at the Broad River, and the Saluda is coming in to form the Congaree, there is plentiful water right there. Having the ability to get that water and have a backup supply, in the event of something in the future happening with the canal, is attractive to us.”
During the 2015 flood and breach, the city had to scramble to provide water downtown. Part of the solution was to pump water directly out of the Broad River.
City staff also want to improve the head gates at the top of the canal, and add a new trash rack to help keep garbage out of the waterway.
And, Shealy says, the city would be interested in getting the hydroelectric plant back up and running.
“We’d get back into the hydroelectric business,” Shealy says. “Good, green power. We’ve got a [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] license, and that facility is sitting dormant.”
What might happen if another massive storm or flood were to sack the Capital City again before the canal is strengthened and repaired?
Benjamin noted just such a concern in his March letter to Wilson. In that letter, the mayor referenced the 2019 hurricane season, which has since begun and could, like any storm season in the South, bring unusually severe weather to the area.
“We are facing an existential crisis — our fourth hurricane season with our primary source of drinking water held together with temporary repairs — and FEMA continues to bog us down in paperwork and appeals, approaching this critical project in a manner that illustrates more concern for bureaucratic cover for the agency than for protecting the health and welfare of Columbia’s citizens,” the mayor wrote.
Shealy says that, for now, the canal is hanging in there. The rock dam is strong, and intake is being closely controlled and monitored.
The water boss also says, should disaster strike and the canal breach again, the city is prepared for emergency measures.
“Any time there’s a storm coming, any issue — I think the last one was [2018’s Hurricane] Florence — we had pumps sitting in a parking lot, we had pipe … ready to go,” Shealy says. “We stage it such that we can easily deploy that and pump directly from the river.
“We are in a much better position to respond more quickly, rather than having to find equipment and find pipe and those sorts of things. We are in a better position, should the unthinkable happen.”
Still, while he is comfortable the city is ready for an emergency, he says the condition of the more than century-old canal is constantly in his thoughts.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the canal,” he says, after a reflective pause. “I’m not overly alarmed about it, but it’s always in our mind. We are always thinking about it. We press forward every day to try to get a resolution. It is unacceptable that we are sitting here three and a half years later and we don’t have a fix in place, funded.
“As a city, we find that unacceptable.”