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Floods Expose South Carolina's Weak Dam Safety Program

Recent heavy rains and floods across South Carolina that broke multiple dams and destroyed hundreds -- if not thousands -- of homes have turned a spotlight on the state's dam safety program.

By Sammy Fretwell

Recent heavy rains and floods across South Carolina that broke multiple dams and destroyed hundreds -- if not thousands -- of homes have turned a spotlight on the state's dam safety program.

South Carolina has for years had one of the nation's weakest dam safety programs, consistently ranking near the bottom of rankings in federal and state government reports.

In 2013, the state spent less than $200,000 on its dam safety program, employing a handful of people devoted specifically to inspecting and regulating the structures. That's roughly the same amount the state spent on the program in 2010, when a national report rated South Carolina 45th nationally in financial resources committed to dam safety.

Lori Spragens, executive director of the national Association of State Dam Safety Officials, said resources for inspecting the state's dams remain low in South Carolina. All told, South Carolina has 2,300 dams, most of them privately owned and made of earth.

"They could definitely stand to have some legislators looking at their program and trying to provide some more money,'' Spragens said, noting that aggressive inspection programs spot problems in dams that could prevent failures. "It's a public safety issue. That's why it is so important.''

Whether a more aggressive program could have prevented the six dam breaks in Richland County and more across the state this week is uncertain. But experts say more aggressive inspection and oversight programs improve the chances that dams can withstand heavy rains like this past weekend's.

Failing dams were tragic this week for many Richland County residents. Hundreds of homes suffered major water damage or were destroyed, and several motorists were trapped below failing dams when their cars were swept away by raging waters. Bridges on major thoroughfares such as the Devine Street corridor were closed.

Most of the destruction in Richland County occured along an an interconnected network of some 200 ponds and lakes -- each with its own dam -- known as the Gills Creek watershed. The watershed meanders along some 70 miles, from the high ground around the Village at Sandhill shopping complex down a long slope to the Congaree River. It goes through the U.S. Army's Fort Jackson and the cities of Columbia, Forest Acres and Arcadia Lakes.

Until this week, many people assumed that watery network was safe.

"We're going to have to reassess what is the new normal," said Erich Miarka, executive director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association. He predicted extreme weather events may cause more watershed problems if the county and state don't beef up dam safety standards. His group advocates for a cleaner and restored watershed.

Another problem the storm underscored is the lack of a warning system to keep people off roads below dams and to evacuate residents when a dam's integrity is threatened.

"Water flows downhill -- it's not rocket science," said Jim Knapp, a University of South Carolina earth sciences professor.

Knapp said he was puzzled that no warning system was in place to alert people to dam breakages. He lives in a Forest Drive neighborhood adjacent to Gills Creek where it flows by Trenholm Plaza. He woke Sunday morning to see a river flowing across Forest Drive and was surprised that there had been no warning.

The Gills Creek dams were built over many decades, mostly by private developers. They are mostly owned and operated by homeowners' association. Some of the waterbasin's larger dams failed this week, officials said.

Richland County Emergency Services Director Michael Byrd said Tuesday afternoon that four dams broke Sunday and Monday: Cary Lake, Arcadia Lake, Upper Rockyford and Lower Rocky Ford. Later Tuesday, the dam at Lake Elizabeth broke. It lies just north of the Gills Creek watershed, an association spokeswoman said.

Several other dams were in danger of failing late Tuesday, including a shaky structure separating Spring Lake in Forest Acres from Forest Lake, officials said. State and county officials are monitoring those dams. Other dams that were in jeopardy Monday were Beaver Dam near Wildewood and Forest Lake, Byrd said.

However, Byrd said he was optimistic those dams would hold because lake levels were dropping.

Some of the dams that have failed are at highly visible lakes, which are lined with homes, many of them built in the 1950s and 1960s and purchased by people attracted to waterfront property.

Meanwhile, a dam on Fort Jackson, Semmes Lake, also broke. A Fort Jackson spokesman said on-base damage was minimal: the loss of a stretch of one road and minor flood damage to a building. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will assess how to rebuild the dam. However, the spokesman also said Fort Jackson officials are studying whether the water from the Lake Semmes' breakage ended up in the low-lying King's Grant subdivision just outside the fort. An unknown number of homes were flooded in that neighborhood.

"We are looking at that," said Army spokesman Patrick Jones. "We do know that would be the logical path for the water to go."

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said Tuesday it could not provide recent data about the dam safety program's budget and staffing levels because of the ongoing crisis created by this past weekend's floods.

In 2013, the dam safety organization gave South Carolina a 47 percent rating in state compliance with the group's national model for dam safety. The national average was 76 percent, the organization said.

Lisa Jones, a former state flood plain manager and now a private consultant, said South Carolina's dam safety program needs improvement. She said the program is "underfunded and overworked.''

Jones said many of the state's dams are aging structures that are "out-of-site, out-of-mind.''

Maintenance of dams through the years has often fallen on property owners' associations, whose leaders have changed hands. As a result, experts say those property owners officials don't always realize the responsibility that comes with maintaining their neighborhoods' dams.

Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Nikki Haley was asked at a news conference if she would press the General Assembly to devote more state resources to dam safety.

Haley said taking steps to reinforce dams is important. Improvements at the Lake Murray dam -- a $100-plus million venture to make it more earthquake proof and generally stronger -- were a plus, she said.. "That's a perfect example of what needed to happen, and we are glad it happened."

After disasters, the public and officials often come up with better ways of dealing with safety situations, she said. Currently, it's too early to be specific about additional safety measures because the state is dealing with the unfolding emergency. "Then there will be a time of, what do we do so that if this 1,000-year rain ever hits again that we are more than prepared, more than ready...our goal is to go back and absolutely say, 'What else can we do"'

(c)2015 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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