Drought spawns draft plan from Corps of Engineers

For more than six months, despite recent rainfall, the Savannah River basin and counties on both sides of the river have struggled through drought status.

 

As recently as April, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources listed the South Carolina counties along the Savannah River from Oconee to Barnwell in drought, some as severe. The Georgia Environmental Protection Department and the U.S. Drought Monitor currently list Richmond and Columbia counties in level 1 drought status, and counties up river have been listed in higher categories since earlier this year.

Georgia EPD has elevated counties from Helen to south of Atlanta to level 2 and last month initiated efforts to increase water austerity measures because of the water shortage.

Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft “Drought Contingency Plan” after several years of study to help alleviate exactly the kinds of conditions the region is now facing.

“If the proposed plan were implemented now, we would have been conserving water sooner,” said Billy Birdwell, spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Birdwell said the current drought contingency plan has different thresholds to initiate water flow control from the dams at Lake Hartwell and Thurmond Lake.

Current lake levels are low enough that the Corps is in what they call trigger level two.

“Until the water level is two feet above the trigger mark, we won’t downgrade the status,” Birdwell said.

He and other river experts said the flow from Thurmond Dam is important for hundreds of thousands of people. Starting with the hydroelectric production in the dam itself, the flow’s importance stretches to the Savannah Harbor.

While tributaries below the dam help flow rates downstream, industry and municipalities depend on the water for production and clean drinking water.

“Drought for the Savannah Basin is always difficult. The river is over 400 miles long, so drought in the top portion of the river affects everyone downstream. Unfortunately we have been in extreme drought for months, meaning the river and lakes are quite low,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper.

The Small Business Administration is also involved in the current drought, calling the conditions it dates to November a “disaster.”

According to a release from the SBA office in Atlanta, residents in 49 of the state’s counties, including Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie counties, are eligible for loans to cover financial losses from the disaster.

The administration said financial help is available for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture and some private nonprofit organizations. The deadline for those applications is July 24.

The Corps studied several different contingencies, including a “no action” plan. According to reports from the Corps of Engineers, the second option among those studied had more positives and fewer negatives than other plans, leaving it the Corps’ top choice.

“The flow will change downstream as we reduce the water flow, which it does now anyway,” Birdwell said.

“The studies show the reduction will still be adequate to maintain the environment, fish and wildlife as well as maintain the industry and water supply downstream.

“There are a lot of needs downstream because of industry around Augusta and the drinking water for communities all the way to Savannah. Both states have a lot of say in that.”

He said flow from tributaries like Steven’s Creek is vital for the Savannah River. Birdwell noted two dams on the river, the hydroelectric dam at Steven’s Creek and the New Savannah River Bluff Lock and Dam, are pass through dams.

“The water flowing into those dams flows right back out. There are no flood or flow control uses for either of those,” he said.

Birdwell said the new plan to conserve water sooner than the current plan allows would be beneficial to residents and would maintain a steadier flow throughout times of drought. He said they learned a lot through the studies and from experience through the drought of record between 2007 and 2009.

“Sharing the river and meeting all its users’ needs is never easy, but must be accomplished,” said Bonitatibus. “When there isn’t enough water, we all share in the pain.”

Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com

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