Rainfall? September had anything but


(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.

The pool elevations on Oct. 1 were 656.31 ft-msl at Hartwell Lake, and 325.48 ft-msl at Thurmond Lake. Under the existing drought plan, the Corps limits outflow from Thurmond Dam to a daily average of 4,200 cubic feet per second (cfs), when in Drought Trigger Level 1.

Water managers also adjust Hartwell releases as needed to stay in balance with Thurmond. Reducing outflow decreases the amount of hydropower generated through the dams but conserves more water in the reservoirs.

In addition, if the 28-day average stream flow at the Broad River gauge near Bell, Georgia, falls below 10 percent of normal, managers will further reduce the flow from Thurmond to a daily average of 4,000 cfs. The Corps expects the pools to stay in level 1 and continue their gradual decline through December.

Corps officials point out level 1 does not limit recreation on the reservoirs. While some swim beaches have limited water levels, camping, boating, skiing, fishing and other forms of recreation continue unabated.

As always, officials urge the public to use caution when boating, swimming or fishing. As the reservoir levels decline, underwater obstructions will be closer to the surface. This is particularly dangerous for boaters and skiers.

All visitors should wear a life jacket when swimming, boating or fishing. Dock owners may need to move their docks to remain in adequately deep water.

“The reservoirs stayed in normal operations and near or above full summer pool since October 2018,” said Stan Simpson, senior water manager for the Savannah District.

The reservoirs experienced a typical late summer decline, according to Simpson. Water managers and dam operators had previously reduced outflows from Thurmond Dam in September in order to balance pool levels between Hartwell Lake and Thurmond Lake.

The announcement of Trigger Level 1 indicates the reservoirs have essentially returned to balance. In addition, water managers will rely on increased pumpback operations at Russell Dam to help meet electricity demands and to retain water in the three-reservoir system. 

Pumpback allows the Corps to generate electricity at the Russell Dam during peak afternoon demand times then reverse turbine direction at night to return the water for reuse the next day, providing power even during drought.

The congressionally authorized purposes of the reservoirs include water supply, water quality, recreation, flood risk management, navigation, hydropower production, and fish and wildlife management.

More than 10 public water systems and industrial users draw water directly from the reservoirs and even more draw from the Savannah River downstream of Thurmond Dam.

Downstream users include the cities of Augusta and Savannah in Georgia and North Augusta and Jasper County in South Carolina. Threatened and endangered species and the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge also depend on the river.

For more information on current lake levels and projections, contact the Savannah District Corporate Communications Office at 912-652-5014, or visit the District’s lake-level website.

~ Billy Birdwell, Corporate Communications Office

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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.

The one and a half mile-long training wall runs from just downstream of Eighth Street and ends 1,800 feet downstream of Boathouse Community Center in Augusta, Georgia. It aided commercial shipping in the early 20th century by keeping the navigation channel deep for the port in Augusta on the Georgia side of the river.

Although there’s no longer a port in Augusta, Corps Project Manager Joshua Nickel said the wall still performs as intended, which creates unwanted conditions today. That is, in keeping the Georgia side deep, the slower-moving water on the South Carolina side caused a buildup of sediment behind the wall over the years. This has gradually made the now-developed South Carolina side of the river shallower.

In its existing condition, Nickel says that the stone and pillared structure presents a safety hazard that impacts navigation and is a nuisance to recreational boaters.

“If we don’t do anything about it, the safety hazard remains,” said Nickel.

Nickel said that one of the potential outcomes of the study is a recommendation to remove the wall at full federal expense. If the study recommends removal of the training wall, the execution would require an appropriation from Congress to complete the work.

Because removal of the wall could also lead to removal of the built up sediment along the North Augusta side of the river, Nickel said the Corps is collecting and studying the soil to determine the best way to dispose of the sediments with the least impact to the environment. Clearing away the sediment behind the training wall would alleviate hazardous obstructions, deepen water levels, and potentially remove unsightly mudflats.

The collected soil samples, which came from select locations in the river behind the training wall, will be shipped to the Environmental Materials Unit and Environmental Monitoring and Technologies, Inc., to be analyzed for particle size and environmental conditions.

“The data obtained will help us evaluate environmental considerations for disposing of the sediment material,” said Corps geologist April Kelly. “We are investigating the sediment to determine its characteristics and also if contaminants are present. The analysis will help us answer questions like: Is it easily erodible? Is it consistent over the depth? Would it be easy to remove? The results will be an important factor in our design considerations for removal and disposal.”

The Augusta Training Wall, indicated by the white line down the center of the river, runs from near Eighth Street in downtown to 1,800 feet past the Boathouse Community Center in Augusta, Georgia.

Nickel said that the soil collection is only one component of the study and that the data obtained from the soil collection will also help the Corps to determine the cost estimate for removing the training wall.

“We are evaluating to determine the best course of action,” said Nickel. “Depending on results of our geotechnical data collection and archeological research, we will shape our conceptual design for removal.

The study is currently scheduled for completion in January 2020.

~ Rashida Banks, Corporate Communications Office

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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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Luck is a matter of perspective

I’m not a betting man, but if I lived in the upper Savannah River Basin, I’d think Mother Nature was trying to tell me something.

In August, the Hartwell sub-basin collected 4.185 inches of rain; the previous month, 4.181 inches.

The only problem with these lucky, almost identical numbers is that they fell three-quarters to one inch shy of Hartwell’s averages for those months. And that, combined with high temperatures, evaporation and transpiration rates could spell lower levels for the reservoir as the recreation season winds down.

Luckily for the basin, Russell and Thurmond made up the difference. Russell received 4.2 inches, while Thurmond grabbed 5.4 inches (both sub-basins average 3.7 inches in August).

The other basin
In the past few years the basin has received some indirect rainfall benefits (without the risk of being close to the damaging winds) as a result of active hurricane seasons in the Atlantic basin.

Although Savannah’s brush with Hurricane Dorian brought minimal rainfall, it was a good opportunity for coastal Georgians to dust off their hurricane kits, prepare for the storm and re-establish ties with their upstate friends and relatives.

We, along with other federal and local officials, had the chance to practice our role – which included pre- and post-harbor and shipping lane hydrographic assessments, and coordination with multiple partner agencies – without the recovery and debris removal aspects. Other areas, even those not that far from Savannah, weren’t so fortunate.

Dorian’s arrival this early in September served as a warm-up for the Savannah River Basin, but is also a reminder that we’re not out of the peak season yet. Now is a good time to evaluate your preparedness and make any necessary changes.

These resources can help: ready.gov and our Official Georgia Hurricane Guide.

So given that Hartwell averages 4.58 inches of rain in September, is there any chance it’ll be 4.18 for the third straight month?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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Dissolved oxygen injection system a ‘remarkable success’

(From left) Bryan Robinson, a hydraulic engineer with Savannah District, Emily Johnson of Tetra Tech, and Hayley DiGiano with LG2 Environmental Solutions, conduct a test of SHEP’s Dissolved Oxygen Injection System, Feb. 21, 2019.

Last week we completed the report on tests for the Hutchinson Island dissolved oxygen injection system, an environmental mitigation feature of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP).

The report contains conclusive evidence demonstrating the downstream D.O. plant delivers results better than anticipated and exceeds the success criteria needed to proceed with deepening the inner harbor.

The tests sought to determine whether the D.O. plant could adequately mitigate for impacts to dissolved oxygen in the river anticipated from deepening the inner harbor channel. Success was measured in three areas:

1) Produce and deliver 12,000 pounds of oxygen per day into the river: We observed 13,385 lbs/day during the testing period.

2) Demonstrate at least 80% transfer efficiency of oxygen to the water: We observed an average of 95% or better transfer efficiency during the test period.

3) Adequate distribution of the injected dissolved oxygen in the river: We observed the dissolved oxygen mixes well in the water column and it remains detectable for days further up- and down-stream beyond what was expected.

In the words of our commander:

“The data-driven results of these tests point to an unmistakable conclusion: The dissolved oxygen system is a remarkable success,” said Col. Daniel Hibner, commander of the Savannah District. “The weight of evidence is immense.”

The 60-day test period involved collecting 24 million data points with an acceptance rate of 97.4%.

A back view of the Speece cones at the downriver Dissolved Oxygen Injection System on Hutchinson Island.

“From the very beginning, my team approached this challenge with incredible energy,” said Hibner. “We take our environmental stewardship very seriously. My team’s solutions-based approach and initiative demonstrate that the environmental component of the deepening is just as important to us as the navigation component.”

Tests ran from March 14 to May 12, which spanned two complete lunar cycles. The schedule was measured in lunar cycles to determine how the different tidal conditions during the testing period would affect distribution of super-oxygenated water in the river.

“Results documented in the report offer clear and verifiable evidence demonstrating an increase in oxygen during the days the system ran compared to the days when the system was shut down,” said Beth Williams, chief of the Hydraulics and Hydrology Section at Savannah District. “The difference in data with the system on versus off can be seen as clearly as flipping a light switch.”

Williams also emphasized the evidence collected using dye.

“The results from the dye testing showed that the water exiting the plant is rapidly mixed both vertically in the water column (top to bottom) and longitudinally in the river (well upstream and downstream from the plant) and that it stays in the system for several days following the event,” said Williams. “Dye tests helped us to better understand and visually see where the oxygen will go when it leaves the plant.”

The report and its appendices are posted here.

An aerial view of the Dissolved Oxygen Injection System plant on Hutchinson Island.

Injecting super-oxygenated water into the Savannah River helps mitigate for the loss of oxygen as the harbor is deepened from its current 42 feet to 47 feet. The SHEP will provide greater opportunity for modern container ships to enter and leave the port with greater loads and with fewer tidal restrictions.

The extra oxygen added to the river will benefit fish, particularly the endangered shortnose sturgeon and the Atlantic sturgeon as they pass through the area to upstream areas and back to the Atlantic Ocean.

The SHEP will benefit the American economy by a ratio of 7.3 to 1. That means for each $1 spent on deepening the harbor, the U.S. economy will see a net benefit of $7.30, or a net benefit of $282 million per year.

The Corps of Engineers uses Speece cones, giant steel cones which use river water, mixing at high pressure to dissolve pure oxygen into the water. The machinery then returns the super-oxygenated water to the river where tides and currents distribute it naturally.

Pure oxygen is extracted from the air at the Hutchinson Island location. As an automated plant, it requires little human involvement.

The system will be used mostly during the hot, summer months when oxygen levels in the river are naturally lower.

The successful demonstration of the dissolved oxygen injection system is a requirement before dredging of the inner harbor can begin. The outer harbor, from approximately Fort Pulaski to 19 miles into the Atlantic, was completed in March 2018.

The construction of a second dissolved oxygen injection system in Effingham County, Georgia, is almost complete. A second test is scheduled for the summer of 2020 with both upstream and downstream plants together. This second test must prove successful in order to continue with the deepening of the inner harbor.

~ Russell Wicke, Corporate Communications Office

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Aquatic plants give shelter to young fish

Annette Dotson, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assigned to the Richard B. Russell Lake, prepares water willows for planting. The native plants, provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, provide shelter for young bass, food for those fry and help prevent bank erosion. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Billy Birdwell)

Finding a quiet and safe place for a nursery tops the priorities for new parents, be they humans or fish. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state partners help fish in Savannah River reservoirs find those safe places for their young.

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The tale of hydrilla and the golden grass-eating carp

Once upon a time there was a terrible invasive weed-queen named Hydrilla who grew so fast she pushed out every other aquatic plant at J. Strom Thurmond Lake. With the help of her toxic underling, blue-green algae, the pair wreaked havoc on local waterfowl and birds of prey.

After a thorough study and survey, residents decided to introduce legions of sterile, grass-eating carp (combined with targeted herbicide treatments, of course) to combat Queen Hydrilla’s stranglehold on the ecosystem.

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Setting the stage

Well, there’s one thing you can say about July’s rainfall: it wasn’t June, but it also wasn’t May, either. (Or is that two things?)

The Savannah River Basin took an abnormally dry month (May), chased it with an abnormally wet month (June) and followed that with something in-between (July).

Last month the Hartwell sub-basin bested Thurmond and Russell, collecting 4.2 inches compared to its 5.1-inch average. Thurmond and Russell received 3.1 and 2.7 inches, respectively, compared to their 4.2-inch averages.

It definitely wasn’t the worst the sub-basins have ever fared in July – that honor belongs to July 2007 when Hartwell collected about three-quarters of an inch. Similarly, Russell’s and Thurmond’s nadirs came in 1980 (1.1 inches) and 1993 (1.11 inches), respectively.

Interesting enough, all three sub-basins had their best showing for July in 2013: Hartwell collected a whopping 13.53 inches, while Thurmond and Russell received 10 and 9.57 inches, respectively.

In summary, this past month’s rainfall fits in seasonally the same way it does compared to the all-time numbers for July: easily forgettable.

Now that July – the opening act – is behind us, our attention shifts to the main event: hurricane season.

NOAA released its updated predictions yesterday regarding the 2019 season, which upped the probability that we’ll see above-average activity now that El Niño has ended.

Of course, when talking about probabilities and predictions everything should be taken with a grain of salt, so long as that grain also includes the fact that last year was the third consecutive year of above average activity.

Here’s how NOAA’s last two predictions panned out:
2018 NOAA mid-season prediction (Aug. 8, 2018): 9-13 named storms, 4-7 hurricanes, 0-2 major hurricanes.
2018 results: 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes, 2 major hurricanes (Florence and Michael) $50B in damage.

2017 NOAA mid-season prediction (Aug. 9, 2017): 14-19 named storms, though retaining 5-9 hurricanes and 2-5 major hurricanes.
2017 results: 17 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and 6 major hurricanes. Costliest tropical cyclone season on record ($294B).

Though hurricane season officially runs from June to November, the majority of blockbuster storms historically hit between August and October.

And whether you’re a gambler or not, it’s a safe bet to start updating your hurricane preparation kits and procedures. Here’s a good place to start: Ready.gov.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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There’s (no longer) an app for that

Community members have been experiencing issues recently with our Savannah Corps lake level app.

Some folks have mentioned that the app will no longer update (but could still access it), whereas others couldn’t even find it in the app store.

The bad news is that the app is likely going away. The good news is we arranged for a relatively simple work around by creating a mobile-size HTML page that works just like the app.

Bottom line up front: If you’re missing the app, here’s an easy 1-2-3 way to access the information:

1. Open your browser and type the following url: water.sas.usace.army.mil/smart. The lake level browser should open and look like this:








For Android phones:
2. Select the menu in the top right corner, and choose “Add to Home screen.”








3. Name the shortcut and place it on one of your home screens.








For iPhones:
2. After typing in the url, hit the upload button, and “Add to Home Screen” (you might have to scroll to the right in this panel to see this option).








3. Name it what you’d like and add it to your home screen.








The icon will appear on your home screen and now will function the same way the app did in the past, providing the most recent information on lake levels, rainfall, outflows and projections (among other features).

When we introduced the app a few years ago, we did so under the umbrella of one of our sister districts in Little Rock, Arkansas. This district maintained a universal Corps account with the vendor enabling multiple Corps districts to host a mobile application.

They technically owned the app license and paid the fee to a vendor for updating and maintain the app’s certificates annually. Since we launched our app, the vendor was bought out several times and their policies have gradually changed making it more difficult to share an account.

Additionally, the Little Rock point of contact has since moved on to another job and the district hasn’t maintained the license with the latest vendor.

We are currently researching affordable options for bringing the app back online and also comparing the cost to benefit ratio with other options. For now, the shortcut option provides near identical service as the application and all the data remains a few clicks away.

Thanks to everyone who provided feedback – please continue to let us know what functions you use or would like to see and we’ll try to incorporate those into our processes.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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