Residents Hope for Early Refill of Lake Murray Dam

Fri October 10, 2003 - Southeast Edition

COLUMBIA, SC (AP) Residents around Lake Murray northwest of Columbia want the lake refilled earlier than planned, as a backup dam is constructed.

Many businesses in the area “cannot sustain another summer like this,” said Bob Keener, president of the Lake Murray Association and the Lake Murray South Side Community Association. “They’re reaching bottom.”

A coalition of waterfront organizations is asking federal officials to allow the 47,500-acre (19,223 ha) lake to start rising before May.

Lake levels may remain too low for much fun on the water next summer if refilling the lake doesn’t start until May. Depending on the weather, it could take six months for the lake to reach its normal high.

Refilling even half of the recent drop would be beneficial, lake groups say.

Marinas, boat sellers, fishing supply dealers and other businesses are suffering from a rainy summer and the slow economy as well as a lower lake, officials said. Local tourism officials say the drawdown may cost lakeside businesses more than $50 million. There has been no measurement of the affect so far.

The water level started dropping in September 2002 as a prelude to construction of a $275-million backup to the dam that created the lake 73 years ago. That new wall is extra protection for the Midlands if the earthen dam cracks during an earthquake.

Challenges have caused delays during construction. Often, crews must use large equipment in small spaces, said Randy Mahan, special projects manager for Scana, corporate parent of South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., owner of the lake. Workers sometimes go into holes up to 60-ft. (18.2 m) deep and remove loosened rock with tools or power sprayers.

SCE&G project manager Sam Stockman compared it to slowly scraping out a cavity and refilling it, in this case with concrete.

Rain and the discovery of items left from the building of the original dam more than 70 years ago have also slowed construction of the backup dam. Over time, workers have discovered rivets, tools, boards and other items.

“A lot of junk has been found down there,” said Mahan.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered lake levels lowered 13 ft. (4 m) below the normal high to reduce water pressure on the dam during construction.

The drawdown dried up many coves and exposed shoals, stumps and other hazards, prompting many boaters to abandon Lake Murray until the water rises.

Federal officials won’t allow the lake to rise earlier than planned unless they are comfortable the dam will remain stable when the water is higher. So far, the dam is behaving well as the foundation for the new wall is attached to it, officials said.

No problems have developed despite summer rain that often kept lake levels 12 to 18 in. higher than officials wanted.

“We would be open to revising that schedule should everything continue as it is going now,” FERC Spokeswoman Celeste Miller said.

No decision on letting the lake rise sooner than May is expected before Jan. 1.

Approximately 60 percent of the installation of the new wall’s foundation has been completed.

Keener is crossing his fingers the lake will rise sooner than planned, even if only a bit. “Every week and every foot we can gain will help,” he said.