Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Andy Cheek: Saving Augusta's Most Important Public Work

Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Augusta, GA

In the 1830s Augusta found itself a dying town. The fur trade was drying up and America was moving west. The South was largely farm and plantation country. Virtually all heavy industry was found north of the Mason Dixon Line. Peter Gregg, having traveled north began to wonder why the South couldn’t produce its own goods here. His thesis on industrializing the South was picked up by Henry Cummings and the idea of the Augusta Canal was born. 

Gregg, already under construction of his Graniteville project,  agreed to oversee the construction of the Augusta project. While Gregg’s, Horse Creek, and the Augusta Canal all share a common history, it is the Augusta Canal that stands alone as the nation’s oldest water way still being used for the purpose it was designed: Industry.  The concept and execution of the building of the canal and the over 40 industries that utilized its hydro power saved Augusta and many southerners from a life of poverty and starvation.

Today the canal is over 150 years old as are many of its parts. During the past 50 years the canal has been a political football. While at one time prior to the 1950s of  having a dedicated crew to maintain it. the canal's usefulness has become less and less important to the city with some political leaders calling for draining it or running rail lines down its bed. Recent reconstruction has prevented failure north of the city pumping station. During recent draining many areas were further inspected and repaired.

Both as a commissioner and citizen I continue to be amazed at the level of institutional neglect our most important and historic public work receives. In 2002 the ARC EMA dive team under took the first study of the structural integrity of the northern reaches of the canal. The area above the city pumping station hadn’t been drained in over 50 years. A second study was conducted by the team from the head gates to the pumping station to further document the undercutting that was occurring and areas in need of repair. Finally, the Canal Authority commissioned an engineering study that not only confirmed the first two studies, which by the way cost the city lunch for the team, but raised serious concerns about particular areas that were leaking through to the river and were deemed in need of immediate attention.  Most of these areas were repaired, while the upper level was drained for expansion of the pumping station. The last and most important element to be examined was the Diversion Dam. This is the structure that both raises the level of the river several feet and diverts it into the canal. Without it there is no canal.

Having played there as a teenager and an adult, my sons and I questioned the reports offered by the engineers that were tasked with inspecting the structure and took a look for ourselves. Our findings were alarming. 

This prompted a call once again to members of the ARC EMA dive team. Both sides of the structure were inspected. The upstream side is fairly well protected by silt. The lower side is showing its age. The structure is roughly a flattened pyramid with a 4 foot slightly sloping flat top. The components are mostly hand cut granite blocks. These collapses are where the dam bends toward Carolina as much as 25% of the base blocks have been scoured away. Evidence of under flowing is also shown in both pictures and a formal report was made to the commission since the director of the canal authority said it was a city utilities problem. To put it plainly -- the structure has holes in it. 

Some small seepage areas and some large enough to push a 1 foot in diameter PVC pipe all the way through.  This collapse is twice as large today.

Yes there is a fish ladder. It’s the first buttress type structure you see as you look out over the dam toward Carolina. It’s leaking and concrete has eroded away from the dam. It still works and many of the canal authority members were not even  aware of its existence.   Based on the materials it is made of, this seems to be a later addition to the structure.

The first large structure is one of 4 buttresses used for removable stop logs. Yes there is 100 year old wood in some of the gates. While gates 2, 3, and 4 are structurally sound, the first is on the verge of collapse. 

Watching this grand old structure age and now slowly break down and hemorrhage through many cracks and large breaches is heart breaking. There are two major areas where water is either flowing under or through the dam.

The Augusta Canal is one of the last intact historical works in our city. It helped industrialize the South and its ‘many mills literally kept many southerners from starving to death. After four separate inspections and one half hearted repair attempt, the conditions have worsened. While words cannot fully express my concerns, the photos of the collapsed areas speak volumes. The Augusta Canal Authority and the city utilities department continue to shirk their responsibilities in repairing this landmark before it fails and is declared unsafe. Zell Engineering and its representatives have never, in the history of my involvement, acknowledged any problems.

If the diversion dam disintegrates, we will lose the canal and the ability to hydraulically pump over 20 million gallons of water to the Highland Park filtration plant, and we will  have to reconstruct the diversion dam under 2012 dam safety criteria. This will take years and cost $millions, and that would be a dam shame.*** 
----Andy Cheek*
*Cheek is a former Augusta Commissioner who represented District 6 from 2000 to 2007

** The Following videos were taken on a recent trip to the diversion dam**

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