Demystifying DL1

Water Manager Kat Feingold uses all available resources for her forecasts and projections.

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.

In November’s Water Resources Outlook, Todd Hamill, Service Coordination Hydrologist for the National Weather Service’s Southeast River Forecast Center, summarized our predicament:

“Our outlook for the winter timeframe for our rivers shows most of the Southeast getting back to normal with the Savannah River Basin being the only one we still have some concerns about. Part of that comes from the series of reservoirs needing some good rain to recover from our most recent drought.”

“Otherwise,” he continued, “stream flow over much of the Southeast has returned to normal and normal rainfall should bring us out of the drought.”

Not content with the National Weather Service’s expert, science-backed forecast, I sought a second opinion via our local expert and water manager, Kat Feingold – and more specifically – her Magic 8 Ball.

“Will the basin be back above Drought Level I (and into normal operations) before the new year?” I asked.

“Outcome not likely,” she said, in her best 8 Ball voice.

(Note: When we asked the Magic 8 Ball on her desk the same question, its reply was: “Definitely not.”)

Feingold provided more background for Hamill’s synopsis of the Savannah River Basin this winter.

“The issue is that no substantial moisture is getting pulled up (from the Atlantic Ocean) and deposited over the entire basin,” she said.

Further, as the storms have rolled in from the West, the precipitation has been falling mostly in the upper basin. Feingold said for the basin to rebound from Drought Level I, ideally we’d need either one really big rain event or a consistent 1-2 inches over an extended period.

Now that we’re experiencing cooler temperatures, with relatively lower levels of evaporation and transpiration, the basin is primed to collect runoff – if we could just get the rain.

So, faced with two to three sets of corroborating bad news, I sought optimistic support from Twitter’s version of the Magic 8 Ball (@8BallTweets).

His reply: “Concentrate and ask again.”

I think he’s saying there’s a chance.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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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.

It’s like the sub-basins were playing with our emotions.

That last-ditch effort propelled Hartwell to 5.7 inches (compared to its 4-inch average), Russell to 4.1 inches (versus its 3.2-inch average) and Thurmond to 3.8 (versus its 3-inch average).

Though this wasn’t exceptional, any rainfall is good rainfall when it follows the uninspired performance that was September.

(Note: Hartwell received more rainfall in 48 hours than the entire basin received for the month of September. Let that sink in.)

Actually, “sinking in” is exactly what our Drought Level 1 basin could use right now.

As stakeholders who have lived in the area for a bit may recall, it’s not just the amount of precipitation that matters, it’s the timing as well. Lots of rain in short periods of time pay biggest runoff dividends.

It’s sort of like in bowling, where a strike or spare can become even more valuable when it’s followed by another.

Likewise, this recent bevy of rainfall could translate to a bigger bump in reservoir levels if it’s followed by additional rainfall while the ground is saturated (and especially now, when transpiration and evaporation rates are descending).

The current seven-day forecast calls for about a half an inch of rain (or less), which isn’t very significant.

Stan Simpson, Savannah District water manager, said last week’s rain was enough to make the pools jump, but we’ll still need more to return to normal operations. (To come out of DL1, both Thurmond and Hartwell would have to climb 2 feet above the DL1 trigger.)

“It shows you just how dry it was,” Simpson said.

Although hurricane season is winding down (it ends Nov. 30), we’re also dealing with the downside.

As Todd Hamill, NOAA senior coordination hydrologist, said in the September Water Resources Outlook, when those tropical storms stay away from our region, we remain dry.

Looking ahead, the question now is will last week be the kick-start the basin needed or just an anomaly in our dry spell?

It could go either way, but I wouldn’t write off the recovery just yet.

~ Jeremy S. Buddemeier, Corporate Communications Office

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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


(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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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.

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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).

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