Lake Olmstead residents excited about dredging

Cary and Madeline Rivers are relative newcomers to one of Augusta's oldest parks.

"We love Lake Olmstead," said Cary Rivers, who bought a house in Lakemont and moved in in September. "We'd been looking in this area for years."

Their home offers panoramic views of a waterway that is showing both its age and its potential.

"It's a shame how it's been let go," he said, surveying a shoreline choked by weeds and litter.

He and other residents hope a planned $4 million dredging project could herald the beginning of a new era for the 138-year-old landmark.

"They used to have ski contests and lots of other things out here," Cary Rivers said. "We'd like to see some of that come back again."

Much of the litter -- along with tons of silt -- originates in nearby Rae's Creek, which meanders through 12 miles of Augusta's most urbanized areas.

"The biggest complaint I always hear is the silt," said Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham, whose district includes part of the lake. "A lot of the area above Broad Street, going back toward Augusta National, is filled in. You can basically walk across some parts of it."

The dredging, to be funded by the special purpose local option sales tax, is geared more toward improving the lake's role as a stormwater abatement channel than for aesthetics or recreation, said Tom Robertson, an Augusta engineer and historian.

"The Rae's Creek watershed is a very urbanized area, probably 18 or 20 square miles," he said. "When water hits that developed area, it runs off fast -- and takes along the dirt and litter with it."

The litter problem in Lake Olmstead has been complicated by the composition of today's refuse.

"We have more floating things now," Robertson said. "Back in the day, glass bottles and tin cans sank to the bottom and paper cups deteriorated. Now we have Styrofoam that lasts 400 years and plastic bottles that float."

The litter is also trapped on mats of exotic weeds whose spread has been fueled by the fertilizer-rich runoff from thousands of landscaped yards.

"The main weed is water hyacinth," Robertson said. "It's everywhere. It grows from a tennis ball-like nodule, and it floats. It is prolific, too. You can spray it and kill it, but it comes back regularly."

The dredging planned by the city, he said, would create the most benefit upstream, where Rae's Creek empties into the lake.

"The bulk of the dredging would be in the upper end, above Broad Street," he said. "That was dredged out before, along with some main parts of the lake, but the shallow areas have filled in again."

Dredging would improve water flow and also reduce flood hazards.

"As that lake silts up, it wants to back more water upstream," Robertson said. "So it would raise the water level in floods."

Augusta Recreation Director Tom Beck said better water flow might improve the litter situation.

"It's an ongoing battle with trash," he said. "We could have gone in there yesterday and cleaned the entire shoreline, but if we got a good rain that brings all that water down Rae's Creek, tomorrow it would look like we never touched it."

The dredging is a vital part of an ongoing revitalization that has been under way since 1997, when a long-term master plan was developed.

"It includes lots of improvements that we've already done -- parking and landscaping, renovations to Julian Smith, an amphitheater, gazebo improvements, lots of things," Beck said. The recent penny tax includes $600,000 for new heating and air at the casino, he said.

Efforts remain under way to provide even more amenities for the park, including a broader network of trails.

"One thing we're going to try to get done is to complete the trail from Julian Smith Casino all the way around the lake, across the bridge and down Lakemont," Beck said. "We're working to possibly get some sidewalk money, but it is all private property there along the lake where homeowners also own down to the water, so putting a sidewalk there has always been a muddy issue."

Robertson said such a trail expansion would create a popular loop and would likely benefit nearby neighborhoods.

"Walking trails would be one of the greatest amenities people want in real estate these days," he said. "Homebuilder associations usually say that is the No. 1 amenity, over golf courses and anything else. But people usually like to walk somewhere and come back a different way. A dead end is not the most desirable."

Cary Rivers said he would be proud to relinquish right of way for such a trail.

"The privilege of living here goes along with helping to keep it maintained," he said. "I'd gladly give up six feet of right of way for something like that."

Residents have come up with other ideas, such as decorative lighting, landscaping on the Lakemont side of the lake, and the eventual acquisition of vacant land nearby that could be incorporated into the city park and used for a canoe and kayak rental site.

The History of Lake Olmstead

- The lake is the legacy of an 1870 project to enlarge nearby Augusta Canal, which in 1845 was routed over Rae's Creek with an ornate aqueduct.

- The expansion, which cost $371,000, was engineered by Charles Olmstead, who worked on the Erie Canal linking Buffalo, N.Y., and Lake Erie with the Hudson River.

- After Olmstead transformed the aqueduct into a new dam, the resulting 113-acre lake was named for him sometime after 1872.

- The area was also known as Lake View Park and was first purchased by the city for $9,150.

- In 1924, an amusement park owned by the Augusta-Aiken Railway was donated to Augusta, which acquired 15 more acres to house the attraction.

- Pre-1900 accounts include references to two large islands in Lake Olmstead, but both are absent today.

- A common misconception is that the lake is named for Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York City's Central Park.

-- Rob Pavey, staff writer