Water levels in the Savannah River fell Monday, and several picnic shelters at New Savannah Bluff Park weren't far behind.
Shortly after the Army Corps of Engineers lowered the river by almost 12 feet, the shoreline upstream from the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam began to collapse.
By mid-afternoon, several picnic shelters, part of a boat ramp, trees and large portions of sod had fallen into the river. Part of the parking lot cracked and sank several inches.
Authorities feared more damage during the night.
Dave Dlugolenski, director of the Richmond County Emergency Management Agency, ordered the area closed to ensure no one would be injured by the unstable shoreline. About 500 feet of shoreline fell into the river.
The collapse likely was caused by the change in pressure from the lower water levels, he said. "As the water level goes down, so does the pressure," he said. "It just fell."
Closer to Augusta, docks and boats appeared unscathed by the drawdown, which is being conducted as an experiment to determine whether the 63-year-old New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam should be closed.
After an inspection of the affected areas today, the Corps will refill the river, with water levels returning to normal Friday.
Riverwalk Augusta didn't turn into a mud flat, as critics had feared, but there was noticeably less water.
"It'll be Savannah Creek pretty soon," said Jonathan Broome of Beech Island, who was among throngs of onlookers who gathered Monday to watch the waters recede.
"They need to fill it back up," he said. "You can't do nothing when it's like this. There'd be no skiing, no boat races, no nothing."
Kathy Osgood spent the afternoon at Augusta Riverwalk Marina watching her two boats, the Laura and the Kathy O, sink closer and closer to the bottom.
"If the water drops 2 more feet, this boat will be sitting on dry land," she said. "Be glad you're not a boat owner today."
All up and down the river, people were watching.
"I don't believe you'll see this many people on the Fourth of July," said Danney Westall, who lives on a houseboat at the marina and rents pontoon boats to visitors. "There have been thousands of people here."
The collapsing shorelines seemed to be concentrated far downstream, where water level changes were more drastic.
"I've lost probably an acre of land that's sloughed off into the river," said Roy Simkins, who owns property on the South Carolina side of the lock and dam.
He said a neighbor's boat ramp had slipped off and broken in two.
"I already had some erosion caused by the Corps of Engineers," he said. "Now with the drawdown, I'm getting a lot."
Industries had taken precautions to avoid losing their water intakes.
Cathy Love, a South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. spokeswoman, said the utility's steam-generating plant in Beech Island was able to function.
"As a test we are running our intake pumps just to see how the lowering of the water levels will affect us, and we've not had any problems at this time," she said.
North Augusta City Administrator Charles Martin said the city's drinking water intakes appeared to be working. "We've had no problems," he said. "But we'll continue to monitor everything."
Mayor Bob Young took a break from the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday festivities to visit theriverwalk just to see what it looked like.
"It looks fine to me," he said. "Where are the mudflats? If it doesn't get any worse than this, we still have a nice riverfront."
The drawdown, he predicted, will encourage turnout at Thursday's public meeting on the issue at the Julian Smith Casino, during which the Corps' district commander, Col. Joe Schmitt, will discuss plans for the lock and dam.
The meeting will begin at 6 p.m., but anyone wishing to speak may sign up beginning at 5:30 p.m. Comments will be limited to three minutes per person.
Col. Schmitt will give a short presentation that will be followed by a question-and-answer session and then public comments.
Written comments may be mailed to Office of the Mayor, Augusta, GA 30911.
A synopsis of the comments received will be forwarded both to the Corps and to members of Congress, Mr. Young said.
Corps spokesman Jim Parker said the drawdown went smoothly but occurred faster than predicted. He said Corps officials would be in town today to inspect the river and the dam and to assess the damage to the park.
Erosion, he said, often occurs when water levels fluctuate. "Anytime river levels go up or down, there's always an opportunity for that to happen."
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.
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