Corps of Engineers says Thurmond Dam failure won’t happen

The Augusta Chronicle

Feb. 14–More than 100,000 people evacuated areas downstream from California’s Lake Oroville amid fears of a catastrophic dam failure, leaving residents downstream from other major water infrastructure questioning structural safety.

Augusta’s population of nearly 200,000 lives downstream from Thurmond Dam at Clarks Hill Lake. The Army Corps of Engineer’s hydroelectric dam holds back the third largest reservoir east of the Mississippi River just about 20 miles upstream from downtown Augusta.

It’s no new topic for conversation, either. In 2013, the Columbia County News-Times published an article about flooding in the area if Thurmond Dam failed.

The story said, “If the J. Strom Thurmond Dam collapsed, anyone living in a subdivision named after a body of water should know their homes are likely in the path of deluge.”

The article quoted then Columbia County Emergency Management Agency Director Pam Tucker calling water-themed neighborhood names a “little clue.”

But engineers with the Corps said a dam failure isn’t something that’s likely to ever happen. Dam Safety Program Manager Lucia Newberry said, “Thurmond Dam along with Hartwell and Russell which are upstream from Thurmond, are all constructed differently than the dam in California. Our dams are all solid concrete down to bedrock.”

Newberry noted that the Oroville dam in California has been fighting erosion issues. She said the water released through the Thurmond Dam spillway flows across solid concrete, making the erosion factor miniscule.

She said Thurmond dam also differs in that it does not have an emergency spillway but instead uses spillway gates that can be adjusted in times of need, such as during last year’s flooding. Those gates are inspected annually by structural engineers and are subject to periodic functions tests.

Newberry said that if any structural issues were ever identified, assessments would begin immediately. She said that based on severity, emergency funding might be needed from the Corps of Engineers headquarters to start repairs immediately.

“We have an emergency action plan that we share with our partners,” said the Corps’ Savannah District Emergency Management Chief David Peterson. “A major strength in the plan is the notification plan in that. It’s a step-by-step guideline of who makes what phone call and who gets notified. With the notification procedure, we practice that with local emergency managers.”

The Corps also manages the lake’s water levels throughout the year to prepare for potentially high waters before they can cause problems. During the winter months, Clarks Hill Lake is lowered a few feet, along with Lake Hartwell.

That process, called a winter draw-down, is meant to protect the shorelines from erosion by typically higher winter winds and to make room for the influx of water from spring rains. The dam maintains flood control through the spillway gates and would function to help control waters in case of a major rain event, like a hurricane.

Another Corps of Engineers structure nearby, the Savannah Lock and Dam, doesn’t play a role in flood control. According to Newberry, the facility was designed for river navigation by shipping barges and to create a larger pool for industry and other needs in Augusta.

“Any flooding that happens just passes through the gates at the Lock and Dam,” she said.

Corps of Engineers spokesperson Billy Birdwell emphasized the structure’s absence from flood management.

“As far as the Lock and Dam is concerned, what comes in upstream goes out downstream,” Birdwell said.

Peterson said the Corps has been coordinating for several months to conduct flood response and emergency management training in the area. He said the Corps has been working with the Georgia National Guard and area emergency management teams to conduct flood drills.

The drills will take place in Richmond County in March.

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

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.