HomeLifestyleSomething You May Not Have Known: Augusta's water system

Something You May Not Have Known: Augusta’s water system

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Most Augustans take for granted the fact that clean freshwater is delivered to their homes, and they may only take notice of the convenience once a month when they pay their water bill.

The fact that we have such a luxury is due to the men and women who operate facilities that pump roughly 35 million gallons daily from the Savannah River to all corners of the 330 square miles that make up Augusta/Richmond County.

Augusta Utilities Director Wes Byne says the modern water system is based on centuries of research and planning.

“Our water is some of the best tasting water available out there, but most people don’t realize that it takes a ton of work to make it all possible,” Byne said.

Simply living next to a river does not make it easy to transport potable water across vast distances as George Towers and Joseph Eve found when they were commissioned by the city of Augusta to study alternative water transmission methods in the early 1820s, according to Byne.

In 1830, the city of Augusta spent the equivalent of $219,162 in today’s money to create the first water system in downtown Augusta. The system started at Turknett Springs where water was transported via a stone gutter to a reservoir, then through an arcane filtration system and into a reservoir that fed 15,840 feet of hand-hollowed log pipes leading to homes and businesses throughout the city.

By 1901, the system was becoming obsolete, and work began to develop the current system of water transmission that we have today.

It was the building of the Augusta Canal that brought a more reliable system of water management, but it wasn’t until 1899 that the current water pumping station still used today was built on Goodrich Street near Eisenhower Park.

“There are three dams upstream that manage the control of water from the Savannah River and the final two here are the diversion dam into the canal and the New Savannah Bluff Lock and dam that controls outflow from both the river and the canal,” Byne said.

From the pumping station on the canal, water is now delivered mainly to the facility on Highland and Central Avenues where it undergoes multiple steps to treat and purify it.

According to Byne, it is the precise engineering of the 1850s era canal that makes our modern system of water delivery so efficient, as the Augusta Canal was graded in such a way as to allow gravity to do most of the work.

“The objective was to harness the falling waterpower and the city of Augusta is unique in that the Highland Avenue site was the highest site in the old city of Augusta,” Byne said, explaining how gravity actually helps pump water up a hill.

The giant water towers throughout Augusta are also a great example of how the city efficiently manages the water supply using technology and nature. Gravity still plays a role in pumping fresh water to everyone in Richmond County.

According to Byne, the water towers seen all over the city are filled by pumps during the day when most people are at work and not using large amounts of water. Later, when people come home and start taxing the system, those towers literally pump water into homes based solely on gravity.

Over the past two centuries, Augustans have attempted to refine the process of moving water from river to tap, but more than two decades ago, the city’s mismanagement of water literally caused the city to go bankrupt and the water system’s infrastructure was failing.

Shortly after consolidation passed in 1996, Aurelia Epperson, who worked in the city’s administration under Mayor Charles DeVaney, blew the whistle on the Austin Rhodes’ radio program that the old city of Augusta had been siphoning money off from the waterworks to pay salaries for city employees.

It was this financial disaster that ultimately helped cause the consolidation of the Augusta and Richmond County governments.

“When Mayor Larry Sconyers took office, he had no clue that the water department was literally out of money, and pipes were busting all over the county. He lost his job over that, and ironically, he wasn’t to blame for any of it,” Rhodes said.

It would take about a decade for the city to recover.

Byne credits former Utilities Directors Max Hicks and Tom Wiedmeier who together launched the Benchmark 2010 initiative that fixed almost all of the infrastructure concerns and placed the Utilities Department in a position of operating effectively again.

“Tom came back; he had left to be a consultant for a couple of years. But Tom came back after Max retired and helped shepherd through the conclusion of that,” Byne said, adding, “We all fully thought that Tom would stay here through retirement.”

Wiedmeier died suddenly in August 2020 due to Covid-19, but Byne says Wiedmeier’s spirit is still felt in the building and that the Utilities Department will carry on providing Augusta with as much water as the Savannah River can provide.

But those old wooden water pipes, some of them which were based on 19th Century technology, were still in use as late as the 1960s. Contractors today continue to happen upon the old hollow logs that once fed water into Augusta.

…And that is something you may not have known.

Scott Hudson is the senior reporter for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected] 

6 COMMENTS

    • Ed Cashin details this in his book about the Augusta Canal: “The Brightest Arm of the Savannah” . Because of the canal , the pumping station uses no electricity to pump the water to the Highland Ave pumping station it is done with Hydro Mechanical power

  1. Interesting article, thank you.
    I want the water department to work on their billing practices. My mother is 78, lives by herself in a one bath house. She has received some crazy bills. Last one was a whopper fifty six thousand gallons.
    She doesn’t even water the grass.
    We requested them to come back out the tech said that there were no leaks, he was astonished by the invoice. He told me to call the office. In the past they’ve gone by prior usage and told her to pay that.
    This time I have gotten a lot of runaround. “we will have to call you back”
    I have to believe she’s not alone in having this happen.

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