Columbia can’t say when safe water will be restored

VIDEO: Waiting For Water

Columbia residents, many without clean water or any water at all, line up to receive water at a distribution center.
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Columbia residents, many without clean water or any water at all, line up to receive water at a distribution center.

City employees are installing boulders as they work to repair a dike break at Columbia’s downtown canal and water plant, while others are trying to find all the breaks in water lines that feed the capital city and rural Lower Richland in the aftermath of historic floods.

At least 12 water line breaks have been identified, but, “We’re going to find a lot more than that,” assistant city manager Missy Gentry said Monday. City crews and private contractors are working on the dike and trying to isolate the number of breaks, she said.

City officials would not say how many water customers were without water since the weekend deluge of record-setting proportions. “The core of the city was without water,” Gentry said at an afternoon briefing. Some customers have been restored, but they could lose water again as workers cut off valves to do repairs on nearby lines.

All of Columbia’s 350,000 water customers are being advised to boil their water before cooking with it or drinking it. Some customers have water but low pressure.

Mayor Steve Benjamin estimates the damage to personal property and infrastructure will reach at least $1 billion in the Midlands, if not more. “I believe things are going to get worse before they get better,” he said.

Wilson said that none of the three downtown hospitals has been without water, though water pressure has not been up to normal. Water that was trucked in was only to sustain chillers at the hospitals.

She said the city has begun receiving 350,000 bottles of water that are to be distributed at sites around town.

Sites at metropolitan convention center and a Walmart on Forest Drive were to begin distributing the 55 trailers of bottled water Monday afternoon, she said. More sites are to be added Tuesday. The centers are to open from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., according to a city news release late Monday.

(See a list of water distribution sites at the end of this story.)

Portions of the University of South Carolina had water pressure by 10:30 a.m., Jaco said. He said he did not know which portions had improved. Port-a-potties were placed outside residence halls, at the Russell House student union and in the Greek Village, according to the Student Affairs Twitter page.

Gentry mentioned boulders but offered no specifics or timetables on when the dike or the water lines will be repaired. “We’re working very hard to stabilize the (water) level” in the canal, she said. The plant is operating at its 60 million gallons per day capacity, Gentry said.

“The dike is breached,” Clint Shealy, Columbia’s waterworks superintendent told The State newspaper earlier in the day. “There’s a 50-foot to 60-foot gash. It’s completely gone.”

Workers discovered the breach last night at the earthen dike that diverts water from the swollen Broad River into the Columbia Canal, which feeds the water plant. The canal supplies drinking water for downtown and lower Richland County – about half of Columbia’s 375,000 customers. Others generally get their water from Lake Murray.

City personnel and private contractors are working to fix the dike, Shealy said, adding he’s unsure when the repair will be completed.

The breach is the first at the dike that survived the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, said Bud Summers, who retired in September as superintendent after almost 35 years of working with Columbia’s water system.

Summers said he cannot recall another breach.

The water is still going through the water filtration plant before being sent to customers, Shealy said.

“It hasn’t impacted us yet,” Shealy said of plant operations. A raw water reservoir at the canal plant is being filled to its 55 million gallon capacity and a 24-inch pipeline to its plant at Lake Murray that can divert some 6 million to 8 million gallons of treated water daily, Summers said in a separate interview with the newspaper.

Meanwhile, water lines are being assessed. But workers cannot yet get those in flooded areas, Gentry and utility director Joey Jaco said.

“I can’t say when this will end,” Jaco said as some 50 city workers and private contractors scrambling to fix ruptured lines. “We’re still searching. As long as the flooding exists, we won’t be able to find all of them.”

City Hall began issuing boil water advisories early Sunday for the sprawling system that serves customers far beyond the city limits into Richland and Lexington counties.

Most of the water line breaks happened in what the utility department considers the downtown district, Jaco said. That district stretches from the Main Street business district south through USC, neighborhoods and into rural Lower Richland. Reports indicate that Lower Richland High School, which is being used as a shelter, is among customers without water Monday.

People are trying to buy bottled water at any grocery or convenience stores that are open. Many stores are sold out, people are reporting.

WalMart has given 80,000 bottles of water to the state, Gov. Nikki Haley said during a noon briefing.

Haley said four water distribution centers will be open in the Columbia area by Monday afternoon. Another six will open Tuesday.

“There’s going to be plenty of water,” Haley said.

The Publix grocery on Trenholm Road at Forest Drive said it had gallon containers of water available beginning at noon. The store’s parking lot has been jammed and customers have been directed across the street to the Tuesday Morning lot.

The Sparkleberry Drive Kroger has no water but is expecting a shipment from Atlanta. The store will be open until 6 p.m.

A bottled water delivery is expected Monday and the university is in touch with city officials about restoring water service to campus, said spokesman Jeff Stensland.

Staff writer Andy Shain contributed. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.


The following is the list of points of water distribution sites in Richland County and the city of Columbia, S.C. Some opened Monday from 5 to 6:30 p.m.. Others will open Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. until the drinking water emergency is over.

1101 Lincoln St. (Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center) 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday

5420 Forest Drive (Walmart parking lot) Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

2615 Lower Richland Blvd. (Lower Richland High School)

Others to be opened in coming days at Midland, Landmark and Dutch Square shopping centers.

National Guard officers will help with the distributions.

SOURCE: City of Columbia

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