Lake Olmstead residents urge city to dredge

Chuck and Penny Ballas had lakefront property in the 1960s. Now their backyard gives way to muck, water reeds, floating hyacinths and -- rising from the brown water beyond -- islands of dirt and scrub brush.

It's swampfront property now.

"This water used to come up to here," Mr. Ballas said, standing at the edge of his grass.

He pointed to a thick patch of reeds.

"There used to be a boat house right here. See that post?" he said, pointing to a beam sticking out of the mud, barely noticeable amid the stalks of foliage. "That used to be the end of my dock."

The Ballases, part of the family that founded Luigi's restaurant on Broad Street, live along the smaller, pondsized section of Lake Olmstead, near where Rae's Creek empties in west of the Morningside Drive, Washington Road and Calhoun Expressway bridges.

They're among dozens of residents asking the Augusta Commission to find funds to dredge the lake, contending that silt buildups are causing shallow spots and vegetation growth that threaten the 136-year-old recreation spot.

The Augusta Canal will be emptied in January and February, reducing Lake Olmstead to a creek, and the residents say that would be the best, cheapest time to do it.

"The problem isn't that we want the lake dredged just so we have more water to use," Country Club Hills resident Nancy Lindroth said. "If you abut Rae's Creek, you don't want to be flooded, and it's backing up the flow of Rae's Creek."

The lake is essentially 113 acres of canal backwater dammed up in 1872. The utilities department is draining the canal so it can run water lines under it connecting the riverfront pumping station to the city's water system, Augusta Canal Authority Executive Director Dayton Sherrouse said.

How much it would cost to dredge the lake hasn't been determined. At a town hall meeting earlier this month, estimates ranged from $3.5 million to $6 million, depending on how much is cleaned.

The last dredging was done in 1992 to remove silt washed in from the 1990 flood.

If the lake bottom is dry, cleaning it would take front-end loaders and dump trucks.

Otherwise, it takes a barge, mechanical pumps and pipes to deposit the sludge at another site, as was done in 1992 when the mud went into a pit along River Watch Parkway.

Residents living around the lake say the water depth has been so depleted that, in some sections, boats can't get through.

Water ski tournaments were held as recently as 1997. Recreation Director Tom Beck said if that were tried now, a motor boat driver unfamiliar with the shallow spots could get stuck.

Repairing the lake was once on the list for the last special-purpose penny sales tax vote, but it didn't make the cut.

When Mrs. Lindroth, a former McCormick County Council member, found out City Administrator Fred Russell was holding a meeting seeking suggestions for using the next round of SPLOST funds, she taped 200 fliers to mailboxes in Country Club Hills, Vineland, Bedford Heights, Lakemont, Lake Course and other neighborhoods near the lake.

Twenty-five people turned out for the Nov. 13 town hall meeting, all but a few raising their hands when asked who had come because of the lake.

Then about 45 people came to a meeting at Julian Smith Casino on Nov. 18, called specifically to talk about the problem.

"It'll be on my list," Mr. Russell told the crowd.

But putting it on the SPLOST list might not get the dredging done while the canal is drained.

The sales tax won't go before voters until June at the earliest, though Mr. Russell said revenue bonds or unused SPLOST funds could be options. Finding money otherwise will be tough given the tight budget year for 2009.

At the Nov. 13 meeting, former Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek contended there's more than $3 million in the utilities department's budget that could be used, but commissioners Don Grantham and Jerry Brigham disputed that. Mr. Brigham said dredging all of Lake Olmstead could cost $6 million or more.

Residents at the meetings blamed the silt on developers along Rae's Creek.

Mrs. Lindroth blames construction at the Interstate 20-Bobby Jones Expressway interchange, which touches the creek.

The Ballases said they sometimes watch trash float by -- styrofoam cups, aluminum cans, basketballs and soccer balls. They said they used to see canoes and fishermen on their part of the lake, but that's rare now.

Sometimes a Jon boat will get stuck in the mud and they'll see the driver having to get out and pull.

"It's ruined the serenity," Mr. Ballas said. "It looks trashy, and it's just gonna' keep filling in."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

DRAINING THE CANAL

The Augusta Utilities Department will drain the Augusta Canal this winter, tentatively from Jan. 8 to March 8. The water flow will be cut off at the headgates in Columbia County, allowing what's left in the canal to drain into the Savannah River.

Utilities will run two water lines -- both 5 feet in diameter inside 6-feet-wide casings -- under the canal to connect the pumping station on the Savannah River to the city's water system.

Two months without water will cost the Augusta Canal Authority about $150,000 in lost revenue because it will be unable to sell hydropower to Enterprise Mill and Georgia Power. Two Petersburg boats will be dry docked.

Source: Augusta Canal Authority Executive Director Dayton Sherrouse