Columbia’s boil water advisory likely will be lifted sometime next week, city officials said Friday as water tankers with police escorts ferried more than 150,000 gallons of water to replenish the downtown water treatment plant’s permanent reservoir.
The plant has been operating under duress since Monday’s breach of the Columbia Canal dike. The canal feeds the plant and its 30 million-gallon-reservoir. Canal repair crews have been furiously trying to patch the dike damaged by floodwater while the city taps the reservoir and other water resources to keep the plant running.
The reservoir is one-third below its normal level at this time of year, Mayor Steve Benjamin and assistant city manager Missy Gentry said Friday evening. That means the reservoir has about 20 million gallons.
Asked if the reservoir was in jeopardy, Benjamin said, “No. But we are employing every resource at our disposal to ensure that clean water is available.”
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He and other city officials said repeatedly this week that the downtown plant — which provides drinking water to 188,000 customers in the capital city and lower Richland County — is not in danger of being shut down.
The number of customers still without water six days into a historic flooding crisis is fewer than 4,000, Gentry said Friday morning.
During the day, fire trucks from Columbia-area fire departments hauled 151,500 gallons of untreated river water to the reservoir, each carrying about 1,500 to 2,500 gallons, she said. City leaders have hired a private company that has 10,000-gallon tankers. Gentry said the larger tankers were to start hauling water either Friday night or Saturday.
In addition, the towns of Cayce and West Columbia along the west bank of the Congaree River have agreed to supply up to 8 million gallons daily from their water systems.
West Columbia is installing a temporary water line along the sidewalk of the Gervais Street bridge to connect West Columbia’s Riverside plant to Columbia’s downtown plant, West Columbia Mayor Joe Owens said. An existing line that connects to Columbia’s water system also is being used, he said.
Cayce will provide as much as 4 million gallons every day, town administrator Rebecca Vance said.
City leaders have asked the S.C. National Guard to supply tankers to move up to 10 million gallon daily to the reservoir, Benjamin said. At first, the mayor said he initially requested the use of military Chinook helicopters. But the twin-propeller choppers cannot haul enough per trip to make them efficient, he said.
City and private work crews have been drawing water from the canal upstream of the breach and from the river since midweek. They used pumps and pipes to keep feeding the reservoir.
All that activity is in addition to efforts to repair the dike, which suffered a second, less serious collapse Wednesday as work on the primary 60-foot gash was beginning. A temporary boulder dam, being built to create a second, temporary reservoir, was about 70 percent complete Friday morning, officials said. Sandbags are being used to bolster the rip in the dike and the temporary dam.
“We’re making a lot of headway,” Gentry said of canal repairs. However, neither she or utilities director Joey Jaco would say when the boulder dam that is critical to sustaining the treatment plant will be finished. Work on it began Monday.
Columbia officials had asked for voluntary cutoffs of sprinkler systems as part of a call to conserve water. Friday, they made it mandatory. Cutting off sprinklers also will ensure that if there are any breaks in an irrigation system, those leaks won’t add to more loss of water from lines.
A boil water advisory has been in effect most of the week for all 375,000 customers. The city lifted the advisory earlier this week for customers in Chapin, Ballentine and areas along the north shore of Lake Murray.
The city and two private companies — M.B. Kahn and McClam & Associates Inc. — have been working to plug the gap in the dike, which is across from EdVenture children’s museum at the Gervais Street bridge, as well as to build the dam.
Jaco said during a Friday morning news briefing that the project has been hampered because the dike cannot sustain the weight of heavy equipment used to place the boulders across the 125-foot span of the canal. That means lighter equipment is restricted to the dike side, which is where the last portion of the temporary dam still must be laid. Work on both sides of the canal has turned into a 24-hour operation, Jaco said.
No additional weak points in the more than a century old canal have been found during twice-a-day inspections, he said during the briefing. “We’re watching every bit of (the canal),” Jaco said.
He and Gentry said construction of a second boulder dam was stopped because it was not slowing the velocity of canal water enough to make it worth diverting time and personnel to that task. The temporary dams were intended to capture water to keep the treatment plant operating while downstream repairs are made on the hole in the dike.
“The dam we started (Monday) ... is the one we’re going to finish,” Jaco said.
Benjamin said, “It’s important to note that the (city’s water) system is running strong. We’re fixing this system one leak at a time.”
City officials dismissed reports that the plant is facing a shutdown soon and that the Army Corps of Engineers is taking over the repair project.
Rumors of a federal takeover of the canal repair project were shot down Friday by city manager Teresa Wilson.
“That is not true,” Wilson said. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been involved in the repairs from the start. FERC is the federal agency with jurisdiction over interstate electricity sales, wholesale electric rates, hydroelectric licensing, natural gas pricing, and oil pipeline rates.
Repair of the canal is Columbia’s project, Wilson said.
Staff Writer Tim Flach contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.