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As we celebrate the City of Columbia and the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally announcing an agreement to repair the 2015 flood damage to the Columbia Canal, everyone involved needs to consider how the work can have the most positive impact on the community.

Restoring the canal and ensuring a water resource for Columbia Water is paramount, and bringing the canal hydropower plant back online is important. But it would be a shame if the $42 million project failed to factor in recreation.  

The only mention of recreation in the city’s news release on the FEMA agreement is that portions of Riverfront Park will have to be closed at some stages of the work. That’s understandable. Supporting recreation isn’t a priority for either FEMA or Columbia Water, but hopefully they can at least be considerate neighbors to the Three Rivers Greenway.

The greenway ran over the portion of the canal berm that blew out in the 2015 flood, though that section often was closed off. The challenge pre-flood was getting greenway users safely around the hydropower plant at the south end of the canal. (The safety of the power plant from vandalism is more of a concern than the safety of the people walking past.)

There were discussions back then about building a bike-pedestrian bridge over the canal, spanning from just before the power plant to Coble Plaza behind EdVenture. A connection could provide a critical link from the State Museum and EdVenture to the greenway, Riverfront Park, the CanalSide development and even for bike riders all the way up to River Road/Broad River Road.

Imagine tourists spending a morning at one of the museums, then walking a few miles on the greenway or hopping on a Blue Bike SC for a ride up the trail. Without that greenway connection, getting from the museums to Riverfront Park requires crossing busy S.C. 12. Tourism leaders don’t want the online reviews from out-of-town folks who try that. For now, people really are better off getting in their vehicles and driving the three blocks to Riverfront Park.

The canal connection will become even more important when the greenway is incorporated into the long-range development of the private land between Gervais and Blossom streets. And that development eventually will connect to the USC campus. Connection is the key to making the greenway everything it is envisioned to be.

Mike Dawson, The River Alliance’s CEO, doesn’t expect the FEMA-funded repair work to include a new bike/pedestrian bridge over the canal. But he wonders if there might be a way a separately funded bridge could piggyback on the project. Could the engineering for canal berm stabilization include an examination of the best way to bridge the canal in that area? Could the engineering/construction firms be allowed to bid on a bridge connection to be built in conjunction with the repair work?

To save money and time, a discussion seems worthwhile involving the city, the State Museum, EdVenture, CanalSide, USC and managers of the Guignard family property south of Gervais Street. It would be a shame to wait until the repairs are completed to once again start considering that critical connection.

By the way, similar considerations should be included in the S.C. Department of Transportation’s Carolina Crossroads Project designed to make the Malfunction Junction of I-20, I-26 and I-126 more functional. The eventual connection between the Saluda Riverwalk and a trail running up to and through Saluda Shoals Park will have to pass under the revamped I-26 and I-20 bridges. It sure would be nice if the potential for a greenway pedestrian trail running underneath those bridges is acknowledged in the project’s construction engineering.