Augusta’s 93-year-old levee is among many across the U.S. that earned a failing inspection grade from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In addition to encroachments from development, such as a parking area at Waters Edge subdivision, the corps also cited excessive vegetation, inoperable drainage gates and other deficiencies.
Although the city’s 12-mile-long levee is not perfect, it remains intact and operable as a means to protect Augusta against floods – even with breaches that were cut in the 1980s to allow the construction of the city’s Riverwalk.
To this day, large wooden beams, or “stop-gaps,” are stored near each levee breach and can be hoisted into place to repel water if rising water ever threatened the city.
More than 20 catastrophic floods surged through Augusta from the 1700s into the early 1900s. One of the worst occurred in 1908 and was the final straw for the city’s governing board.
That year, the river swelled wildly beyond its banks, knocking out bridges, pushing buildings from their foundations and leaving 18 people dead. Dozens of city blocks were destroyed.
The corps had recommended as early as 1870 that a levee or dam should be built to protect the city, but the idea wasn’t taken seriously until the deadly flood of 1908.
Plans to erect a levee to repel the river from downtown accelerated that year, and by 1911 - when another major spring flood sealed public opinion on the matter - a Canal & River Commission was formed to get the job done.
The levee gave Augustans a sense of security, and indeed it repelled its first flood soon after its completion in 1919. Similar surges flowed harmlessly past the city in 1921 and in spring 1929.
However, on Sept. 20, 1929 - just weeks before the stock market crash that fueled the Great Depression - the waters rose once again, and the levee was topped in several locations.
Despite a decade of work, more than 100 city blocks were flooded as the river surged to an estimated 38 times its average flow.
The city initiated steps in 1930 to enlarge and strengthen the levee. The project was completed in 1940.
Soon afterwards, the completion of Thurmond Dam upstream offered further protection to the city, and the levee was viewed by some as obsolete.
A group proposed removing the levee in 2007, saying the upstream dams gave the city ample flood protection, but the idea - which would require, literally, an act of Congress - was never formally pursued.