Augusta's river levee cited for deficiencies

Augusta's 91-year-old levee flunked its latest inspection by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has sent the city a list of improvements needed to reinstate the structure's "acceptable" status under federal flood prevention programs.

In a letter dated Jan. 19 and sent to City Administrator Fred Russell, the corps said excessive vegetation, inoperable drainage gates and encroaching structures all require corrective action.

"Some of these same deficiencies and recommendations were identified in previous inspection reports," wrote Col. Jeffrey Hall, the corps' Savannah District commander, who noted the city was given one year to resolve vegetation issues identified in a 2008 inspection. "To date, we have not received your plan."

The deficiencies will be corrected, and the "unacceptable" rating is not likely to jeopardize the city's recently acquired accreditation for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program, said Karyn Nixon, the executive assistant to Mayor Deke Copenhaver, in an e-mailed statement Friday.

Corps officials agreed, saying that FEMA officials use a 100-year flood standard, while the corps and its inspection programs use a 1,000-year flood standard.

The 12-mile-long levee was built in 1919 and strengthened in the 1930s. The 1954 completion of Thurmond Lake 22 miles upstream from Augusta reduced the threat of floods, prompting interest many years later in developing the levee area. In 2007, a group unsuccessfully proposed removing it altogether, but later learned such a plan would require -- literally -- an act of Congress.

Hall's letter stated that several downtown structures were encroaching on the levee, and contends some of those encroachments were not submitted to corps officials for review.

The city's statement, however, said most structural encroachments cited by the corps, such as the Marriott hotel and Riverwalk improvements, were approved by the corps.

"Augusta will provide additional background documentation of these approvals that was not available to the corps inspectors at the time of their inspection," Nixon's statement said. "The city plans to repair the other minor deficiencies as necessary."

One deficiency, for which there is no apparent resolution, involves the Waters Edge housing development near Reynolds Street "which would hamper the corps' ability to work on the levee should there be a 1,000-year flood event," Nixon's statement said.

Augusta Levee deficiencies:
Undesirable vegetation on earth embankment, particularly on upper end, prevents proper inspections and could reduce its ability to repel floodwaters.

Structures downtown are encroaching on the structure, and some of those encroachments were not submitted for proper review.

Portions of the levee have blocked drain holes, erosion damage and inoperable drainage gates.

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers letter dated Jan. 19, 2011

LEVEE HISTORY

After severe floods in 1908 and 1912, the city and the federal government spent $2.2 million on a levee completed in 1918, but it broke in 1929 during Augusta's worst flood on record.

The levee was enlarged from 1936-40 with help from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Works Progress Administration.

The strengthened earthen levee stretches about 12 miles from the Augusta Canal headgates to Butler Creek.

In 1954, the corps finished Clarks Hill (later renamed Thurmond) Dam, which now controls the river's flow from Augusta to Savannah.

In the 1980s, former U.S. Rep. D. Douglas Barnard pushed through federal legislation allowing the breaches in the levee that made Riverwalk Augusta possible.

A group proposed removing the levee in 2007, saying the upstream dams gave the city ample flood protection, but the idea was never pursued.

Source: Augusta Chronicle archives, Army Corps of Engineers

 

Corps: Augusta levee project