Rolling into 2020 like … a storm

A graph depicting Hartwell’s pool elevation from January 2019-January 2020.

If the first two weeks are any indication, 2020 is going to be a banner year for the Savannah River Basin.

As of today (Jan. 15), all three sub-basins have collected 5 or more inches of rain, easily besting their January averages with two weeks to spare.

This situation also has the basin sittin’ pretty as we begin our guide curve ascent toward 660 & 330 (feet above mean sea level) for Hartwell and Thurmond, respectively. Or more loosely put: It’s better to have rain in the reservoir than to be dancing for it.

But lest we count the rain before it falls for the rest of the year, let’s look back to see how we got here.

In December, the basin climbed out of Drought Level 1 thanks in large part to “Santa Claus” storms that delivered much-needed rain to the good basin leading into Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

For perspective, though, the only reason the come-from-behind victory over DL1 was so impressive is because of the stress-inducing see-saw of the previous 11 months.

Both Hartwell and Thurmond began 2019 smiling: above guide curve and with above average rain. But that’s about as stable as it got.

Thurmond proceeded to receive sub-par precipitation for the next two months, specifically with only a 51% of average showing in March, normally the wettest month.

Luckily, Hartwell made up the difference – nearly all of it in February alone – when it received 7.6 inches and pushed the reservoir well into flood storage. (It’s especially efficient to receive the bulk of the rainfall in the Hartwell basin as it can be passed through each of the dams and generate electricity each time as we balance the system.)

After February, it was all downhill from there, but not in a good way as that normally implies.

With the exception of two short upward spikes (in late April and July), the reservoirs’ observed elevation continued their downward trudge toward Drought Level 1 in the fall.

From April to September, more often than not the sub-basins received sub-par rainfall – all at a time when evaporation and transpiration are at their peak.

September was especially grim as Thurmond collected a scant 0.52 inches of rain and Hartwell, 1.4 inches (compared to their 3.5 and 4.6 inch averages, respectively).

A strong showing for precipitation in October helped stem the tide but again, the full recovery from DL1 and return to normal operations didn’t occur until the last two weeks of the year.  

So where does that leave us? We’ve seen better, but have also experienced much worse (ahem, recent droughts that will remain unnamed).

It’s a new year and a new decade, let’s let the sub-basins speak for themselves.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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Data collection to cause minor changes in water levels near lock and dam

Beginning Sunday fluctuations in the pool behind the New Savannah Lock and Dam will occur and last approximately two weeks.

The changes in water level will occur to enable data collection connected to a geotechnical investigation on the lock and dam structure.

All fluctuations will remain within the normal operational range, which is between 112 and 115 above mean sea level (ft-msl).

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Demystifying DL1


Not normally known as wet month for the Savannah River Basin, November did its best to solidify its reputation as an underachiever.

All three sub-basins fell short of their averages, with Hartwell registering 3.2 inches, nearly an inch and a half below its average. Thurmond and Russell collected 2.6 and 2.9 inches, respectively, just more than half an inch below their averages.

Misery usually loves company, but last month the Savannah River Basin said, “Leave me be.”

While most of the Southeast is on track to recover from the drought, we’re struggling to pull up the rear.

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Procrastination pays off?

I’ll admit it: By last week I had written off the Savannah River Basin as being subpar for another month. Who needs rainfall anyway?

However, pre-Halloween storms blew through like a wolf on our three little pigs and pushed each over its monthly average. In just the last three days of the month Hartwell received about 3 inches of rain, while Thurmond and Russell each collected 1.3 inches.

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Corps announces decision on fish passage; plans for public engagement

SAVANNAH, Ga. – This afternoon we announced a decision on the future of the fish passage at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam near Augusta, Georgia. We selected alternative 2-6d, a set of river-width weirs followed by the removal of the deteriorating lock and dam.

We plan to hold a public engagement Nov. 13, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., at the Boathouse Community Center, 101 Riverfront Drive, Augusta, Georgia, where the public can hear details about the decision.

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Permit fee increases suspended pending national review

SAVANNAH, Ga. – We are delaying the implementation of fee increases for shoreline permits in the South Atlantic region while Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, conducts a national review of the shoreline management program fees.

The South Atlantic region will continue to operate the current Shoreline Management Program within its existing procedures and fees until further notice.

Media queries should be directed to Doug Garman, Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at 202-761-1807, or after hours at 202-459-3591.

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Rainfall? September had anything but

Pfffft!

(That’s the sound I made while spitting out my coffee as I noticed September’s rainfall tally for the Savannah River Basin. Coincidentally, that’s how I imagined Mother Nature produced the rainfall that misted the basin last month.)

Misted might even be too forceful a word. Let me explain:

– Thurmond received a paltry half of an inch of rain for the entire month – tying its third worst performance for September since 1948.
– Russell collected 88% of its monthly rainfall (0.94 inches) in one five-hour period (Sept. 13-14).
– Hartwell bested the other two sub-basins with a *whopping* 1.41 inches compared to its 4.6-inch average for September. (That’s just under 31%. In school you can score higher on a test just by putting your name on the paper.)

The basin was so dry last month that if all the rain had fallen in the Thurmond sub-basin, it still would have been a half inch shy of Thurmond’s 3.5-inch average.

September’s rainfall left much to be desired for the Savannah River Basin.

So, despite a solid showing in June and August this summer, the exceptionally high heat and September’s utter lack of rainfall helped usher the basin into Drought Level 1 Oct. 1.

When this occurs, it triggers our drought management plan, which conserves water in the reservoir system by reducing outflows from Thurmond Dam.

Our water managers’ conservative estimates project the basin will remain in Drought Level 1 through December. While this isn’t exactly ideal, at least it’s not expected to get much worse.

The last drought is still relatively close in our rearview mirror but we’d like to keep it behind us.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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Upper Savannah reservoirs enter Drought Level 1

SAVANNAH, Ga. – The three reservoirs on the Savannah River operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the first drought level Tuesday in response to the pool elevation at J. Strom Thurmond Lake dipping below 326.0 feet above mean sea level (ft-msl). Entering Trigger Level 1 activates the Corps’ drought management plan which conserves water in the reservoirs by reducing the outflows from the Thurmond Dam.

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Corps kicks off Augusta Training Wall Disposition Study

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Geologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District began collecting soil samples from the bottom of the Savannah River recently as part of a disposition study to determine the cost and benefit of removing an old underwater training wall in the Savannah River.

Corps Driller Matt Cook and Corps Geologist April Kelly from Savannah District measure soil collected from the bottom of the Savannah River to determine the quality of the sample. The soil samples will be shipped to a laboratory for analysis and the data obtained will help the Corps evaluate environmental considerations for disposal of the sediment material located behind the Augusta Training Wall. USACE photo by Justin Nixon.
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The Spidermen of the Corps

Kyle Arentsen, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District, inspects one of J. Strom Thurmond Dam’s 23 Tainter gates, Aug. 28. Photo by Scott Hyatt.

An urgent call comes in.

“I understand,” Bill Moeller says. “We’ll be right there.”

Moeller and his team suit up and within minutes they’re rappelling down the face of a massive concrete structure hundreds of feet above the river.

———

That’s how Moeller’s job sounds, anyway, to someone who spends most of the day behind a desk.

In reality, though, it’s much more Captain Safety than Captain America.

Moeller, the senior structural engineer at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District, leads a team of nine engineers who travel around the country to inspect the Corps of Engineers’ more than 150 structures while dangling from a rope hundreds of feet up.

Last month, Moeller and three other members of the St. Louis District’s Structural Rope Access Inspection Team tackled J. Strom Thurmond Dam’s 23 Tainter gates for a hydraulic steel structures inspection, or HSS.

“We use rope access because it’s a lot more efficient than the old techniques, where we used cranes, scaffolding or man-buckets,” Moeller said.

USACE HSS regulations require engineers to be within arm’s reach of the fixtures they inspect. Moeller said they’re looking for any structural deficiencies on the gate like cracks, weld quality and any deformations of the structural members on the gate.
 
While on the rope at dizzying heights, they’re so calm they might as well have been processing spreadsheets.

Moeller and his team are members of the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians, or SPRAT, which stresses safety, education and regulatory support for these engineers with a “higher calling.”

With no prior experience, engineers can qualify Level I SPRAT after just one week of training.

Moeller’s team ranged from one to 16 years of experience, but also had expert support from Doug Stephenson, a contractor with Vertical Consult.

Structural engineers from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District ensure the safety of J. Strom Thurmond Dam during a weeklong hydraulic steel structures inspection. Video by Jeremy S. Buddemeier, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District

Stephenson brought several keg buckets of extra rope, which he pre-staged and successively repositioned as the team methodically completed each gate.

He also brought a wealth of experience. As a Level III SPRAT (the highest), he’s trained to conduct on-rope rescues in the event of an emergency.

After establishing a rhythm on the first day, the team averaged five to six gates per day.

“The physical activity is the hardest part of the job,” said team member Justin Litteken, USACE St. Louis District. “Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes it’s snowing.”

During Thurmond’s weeklong inspection the team had to contend with 80-90 degree heat and even worked in the rain. When the thunderstorms got too intense, they sought shelter under the gates while they waited for it to pass.

As the St. Louis District team is one of the largest in USACE that conducts these inspections, their travel schedule is as grueling as their work days. This summer and autumn they averaged one inspection every two weeks.

When they’re not conducting assessments for dams in other districts, they’re inspecting the locks, gates and service bridges in the St. Louis District, and performing their regular duties as structural engineers.

The team said about 30-40% of their job is spent conducting these types of inspections around the country.

A few months ago they scaled the sheer face of the Dworshak Dam (near Orofino, Idaho) which, at 717 feet, is the third tallest dam in the country. (For a point of reference, the Hoover Dam is only 9 feet taller. Thurmond Dam is a mere 200 feet tall).

“You’re so busy with your gear and the inspection that you don’t realize you’re that high,” said Ariel Marrero Irizarry, USACE St. Louis District, who is still in his first year as a rope access technician.

At some point (say after 100 feet?), height is irrelevant because the result of the fall is the same. Still, aren’t they ever afraid of heights?

“Can’t be,” Litteken said.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

Follow the USACE Rope Access Team on Instagram here.

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