Saluda River warnings not enough, groups say

New lights and sirens to alert people out on the lower Saluda River that it is rising rapidly aren't enough to improve safety there, two groups say.

Those signals should be accompanied by more restrictions on water flowing from the Lake Murray dam upstream, Trout Unlimited and the Congaree Riverkeeper say.

The 10-mile stretch of river is a playground that can turn dangerous when water is released from the lake.

Twelve people have drowned in the river since 1997, and there have been numerous rescues of swimmers and waders stranded on rocks when they were cut off from shore by surges of fast-moving cold water.

The two groups' complaints about inadequate attention to river safety came in reaction to proposed changes in lake operations that could be in effect for up to 50 years.

As part of those changes, South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. is offering to install up to 11 new warning signals - there are five now - within three years, after federal approval. The utility also is offering to provide more advance high-water notices, given online and by telephone.

Its plan is supported by some river groups as a national model. It could result in "one of the safest urban rivers in the country," American Rivers officials say.

But Trout Unlimited and the Congaree Riverkeeper leaders argue more control over water flow is just as vital.

"The proposed improvements to the warning system on the lower Saluda should not absolve SCE&G from doing more to reduce downstream flow fluctuations caused by unscheduled releases," the riverkeeper group says.

Those releases occur mainly in summer for hydropower and after heavy rains.

It will be up to federal officials to accept, reject or modify features in SCE&G's plan.

The Cayce-based utility wants federal approval for extra signals on the river - a $2 million project - before moving ahead. It's possible more equipment could be required.

SCE&G would add lights and sirens on the river in stages.

Initially, four lights would be put in between Saluda Shoals Park near Irmo and Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden six miles downstream. There are two in that area now.

The signals would be tested for a year to see if they benefit those who play in the river without significantly annoying nearby homeowners.

Those results will determine whether up to seven more sirens follow in other areas. There are three now.

In addition, signs scattered along the river warn people to leave when they see water rising toward levels marked on poles.

Adding signals is "a delicate balance" to ensure adequate warning for people playing on the river without becoming a nuisance for riverside neighborhoods, SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said.

Federal approval for more signals could come as soon as mid-2010, meaning it would be mid-2013 at the earliest before everything would be in place.

But Trout Unlimited said river recreation will remain "inherently unsafe" even with more signals unless the flow from the lake is controlled better.

The group "probably is being a little extreme and not pragmatic, but that's OK," local leader Malcolm Leaphart of Irmo said.

SCE&G's river-safety plan needs "a hard and fast look" to see if it's sufficient, he said.

No landings are slated to be added to help those on the river leave quickly, Trout Unlimited and Congaree Riverkeeper leaders say.

The groups recommend that at least one additional landing should be opened near Lexington within three years. There are three now, and several unofficial sites.

In addition, SCE&G can do a better job of planning and publicizing lake releases even when storms produce more rain than expected, Trout Unlimited and the Congaree Riverkeeper say.

Trout Unlimited described other river groups' support for the signal plan as payback for unspecified "concessions" to their interests.

Gerrit Jobsis, regional director of American Rivers, declined comment on the challenges to the safety plan.

His organization took the lead in seeking improvements in safety that led to the new signals and extra notice about rising river levels.