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Congaree River rising; next 24 hours could determine extent of statewide river flooding

Rivers across South Carolina continued to swell Saturday as local, federal and state officials watched nervously, worried that possible record floods could pound waterfront neighborhoods, damage public recreation areas and cause sewage spills.

The federal Southeast River Forecast Center listed more than a dozen rivers and creeks in South Carolina as being at some threat of flooding in the next few days, according to the agency’s website.

In the Columbia area, the Congaree River was of particular concern. Officials in Cayce were monitoring the rising water to determine if they would seek to evacuate some residential areas that have historically been prone to flooding.

A stretch of the river closest to Columbia had not reached flood stage Saturday afternoon, but that was expected to change by Monday morning, according to National Weather Service data. River forecast data show the Congaree in this area at near major flood levels by then.

Farther downstream, the rising water was more pronounced. An area near the old Carolina Eastman industrial site in Calhoun County was already at flood stage and was expected to reach record flood levels by Monday, the weather service said.

Other rivers of concern included the Wateree River near Camden, the Savannah River near North Augusta, the Great Pee Dee River near Cheraw and the Saluda River near Greenville. Black Creek near Florence was at risk of major flooding. Heavy rains also are expected to further impact the Orangeburg-Barnwell area, in the Edisto River basin.

Chris Rohrbach, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said some flood warnings had been issued, but the intensity of the rain in the next two days would determine whether others also would be issued. He held out hope that flooding might not be as bad as predicted, but that depends on rainfall.

Columbia utility workers struggled much of the day to keep sewage from spilling. The city’s wastewater treatment plant, permitted to treat 60 million gallons of sewage per day, at one point took in 100 million gallons of water Saturday, the result of high river and creek levels that sent extra water into the system, utilities director Joey Jaco said. City officials diverted the excess water to a holding basin to make sure sewage did not spill. The city also experienced one small sewer spill at a pump station, he said.

Rohrbach said one reason the Congaree had risen in Columbia relates to the Lake Murray dam. More water has been released through it. Heavy rains in the Upstate could cause Lake Murray to spill its banks unless water is sent through the dam and into the Saluda River. The lower Saluda flows into the Congaree.

Rising river levels brought out some people Saturday to the look at the Congaree, which was mud-colored and moving swiftly. At one spot across from the state museum near the Gervais Street bridge, the end of a wooded peninsula lay submerged beneath the water, with only a tree sticking up through the river.

Dawn Lambert, a former Florida resident who now lives in Irmo, said she expected the river to be even higher, given reports in the media. But she said it was fascinating to look at. Florida rivers don’t flood the way they do in this part of the country, she said.

“You don’t see water like this,’’ she said of Florida waterways.

Because of the flood threat, Cayce and West Columbia officials were taking precautions along the popular Riverwalk across from where Lambert stood Saturday.

Cayce workers put sand bags along part of their section of the Riverwalk in an attempt to protect trees from rising waters that could be uprooted. Cayce and West Columbia shut down the Riverwalk in Lexington County.

Cayce officials are paying extra attention to flood-prone areas along the Congaree River, but it's too soon to say if residents there might be urged to evacuate as water levels rise, city spokeswoman Ashley Hunter said. Mayor Elise Partin said that, so far, Cayce had been fortunate and she was hopeful neighborhoods would remain free of flooding..

Both river flooding and flash floods remained a concern Saturday -- and state health officials warned people to stay out of the rising waters. Floodwater often is some of the most polluted found anywhere because of contaminants that wash off of streets. Animals, such as snakes, also are a threat in flood water, state health officials said.

““We strongly warn residents to stay away from floodwaters and, to reduce the risk of infections and traumatic injuries including drowning, don’t swim, play or boat in the water,” said Jamie Blair, deputy director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Public Health Preparedness. “Water from flooding can carry viruses, bacteria, chemicals and other physical items picked up as it moves through storm water systems, across industrial sites, yards, roads and parking lots. These threats can cause serious illness and injury and should be avoided if at all possible.”

Staff Writer Tim Flach contributed to this story.

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