Originally created 02/07/98

Dam release creates spectacle



Ed Ergle didn't think he'd live to see it again.

The 72-year-old North Augusta resident was one of many who trekked to Thurmond Lake on Friday to watch the rare spectacle of water rushing through Thurmond Dam's flood gates.

Rainbows formed at times from the combination of sunlight striking the suddenly soaking dam.

The Army Corps of Engineers opened the gates Thursday to remove excess water from the lake.

"I've been waiting 34 years for this," said Mr. Ergle, who saw the same sight in 1964.

The temporary waterfall brought a deluge of sightseers to the dam Friday, said park ranger J.W. Rose.

"We've had a lot more (traffic) than usual for this time of year," he said. The Corps expects even more visitors over the weekend. The gates will remain open until at least Monday, and maybe later into the week.

The lake level must drop below 335 feet before the gates can be closed, said park ranger Annette Carter. "Otherwise it would just spill over the top," she said. The lake was at 335.45 feet at 2 p.m., according to the Corps' official web site.

"It's nice to see so many people taking an interest in it, with everything else that's going on, just taking the time out to come and enjoy looking at something beautiful," Mr. Ergle said.

But while they expect and encourage visitors, Corps officials warn that it is important to be cautious around the rushing water.

Boaters should stay off the river and lake for the next few days, Mrs. Carter said, and spectators should be careful on the banks and stay off the rocks, which are slick from the water misting off the falls.

Hamilton Branch State Park in McCormick County was closed because its picnic area and a large part of its campground were flooded. The park should reopen next Friday, after the water has receded, said Dawn Dawson with the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department.

A few miles downstream, employees at Savannah Rapids Pavilion in Evans could see -- and hear -- the thundering effects of the additional water spilling into the river.

"It's running a lot faster than usual," said Tammy Shepherd, general manager of the pavilion. "It's going up into the trees. I`ve been here five years, and this is about as full as I've ever seen it.

"People have been joking about it and calling us all day, asking if we're in the river yet. We're not drowning," she added.

Further down the river, Bill Specht aimed his video camera at the unusual sight of Riverwalk under water, filming the muddy stream covering the bottom portion of Jessye Norman Amphitheater. But video alone wouldn't do.

"I've also got my underwater camera, just in case," Mr. Specht joked and pulled out a 35mm camera to snap a few frames. He was out first thing Friday morning to watch Thurmond Dam's mighty display, then came downtown to see the effects on Riverwalk.

"It's beautiful, beautiful. Reminds me of the American falls up at Niagara," Mr. Specht said of the sight at Thurmond Dam. "It's something you see maybe once every 30 to 40 years, and I'm going to see it."

Pam Tucker, Richmond County's emergency management director, plans to do a little sightseeing this weekend as well, because she had no flooding problems to handle Friday.

"Everything is running off real good and if we do get any rain it's just going to be light," Ms. Tucker said. "We feel good about it."

In North Augusta, Carl Sanders Jr. stood on the community dock for his River North subdivision development and smiled.

Water licked the edges of the dock but never threatened the 317 lots Mr. Sanders has been developing since 1995. The lots closest to the Savannah River still had about 5 feet of river bank protecting them Friday morning, even after Thurmond Dam's spillways had been open about 15 hours.

"I slept last night," Mr. Sanders said. "We're in good shape. I don't think there's any significant rainfall in the forecast, and I think we'll get through this just fine."

He had taken calls from some of his future homeowners, but they were more curious than concerned about the extra water, he said. He plans to make how well River North stood up to the Savannah River this week a new sales pitch to sell all the lots.

"You're darned right. Wouldn't you?" Mr. Sanders asked, grinning.