Thousands of dams avoid state inspections in South Carolina

Thousands of dams across South Carolina go uninspected by state regulators every year because the structures aren’t considered significant enough to warrant government oversight.

But experts say some of these unregulated dams pose risks to people and property if they fail – particularly in urban areas like Columbia, where a massive rainstorm Oct. 4 broke numerous dams.

During the historic flooding, as many as 23 dams in the Columbia area buckled under the pressure of rushing water, contributing to the overall flooding that swamped homes, washed out roads and forced evacuations of neighborhoods.

State officials acknowledge that at least four of those dams were not regulated by the state, including a northeast Richland dam believed to have sent water gushing down Jackson Creek toward Decker Boulevard and into Cary Lake. The regulated dam holding back water at 56-acre Cary Lake also burst during the storm.

Unregulated dams are a problem in many places, experts say.

“There probably are hundreds if not thousands of dams out there (nationally) that are currently unregulated that ought to be regulated for one reason or another,’’ said Bruce Tschantz, a former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s dam safety office

Across the state, the S.C. Emergency Management Division estimates there are 10,000 to 20,000 dams that are not regulated by government dam safety programs. The figure is down from the 48,000 estimate the agency once gave, but still significant in light of the number of dams the state does regulate.

All told, South Carolina oversees safety on 2,400 dams that fall under its regulatory program because they reach a specific height or hold a certain amount of water. Federal agencies oversee a handful of major dams, such as at Lake Murray, as well as those on the Army’s Fort Jackson training base.

In the Columbia area’s Gills Creek watershed, where more than 100,000 people live, a recent consulting report said more than 100 lakes dot the area stretching from northeast Richland to areas southeast of Columbia.

But many of the dams holding back those lakes apparently receive no state oversight. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ national dam inventory lists just 112 regulated dams in all of Richland County, nearly one-quarter of which are in the Gills Creek watershed.

Not all unregulated dams are dangerous, said Tschantz and Steve Bradley, who led South Carolina’s dam safety program before retiring about four years ago. Like Tschantz, Bradley said some of those dams hold back small farm ponds or aren’t near enough people to be a threat if they broke.

Still, Bradley agreed that some dams not regulated and inspected by the state deserve scrutiny. He estimated up to 1,000 unregulated dams in South Carolina could use some level of oversight by government agencies.

Bradley recalled that while he was running the dam safety program at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, he would look at aerial photographs at times and think, “we ought to be regulating this dam.’’

A DHEC spokeswoman said last week that the department is working with an engineering consultant to determine whether some dams not under its authority should be regulated.

That could prove difficult.

Bradley said the agency barely has enough people to keep up with the dams it does regulate. At one point during his tenure, Bradley said, he was the only staff member at DHEC specifically overseeing dams.

Asked about the possibility of putting more dams under state regulation, Bradley said: “I don’t know how you could.’’

Cash-strapped programDHEC has in recent years had one of the most poorly funded dam safety offices in the country.

The state program was robust when it was part of the old Land Resources Commission, former officials say. But when the Legislature restructured government in the early 1990s, the dam safety program was put under DHEC’s control.

The program began to suffer from budget cuts and gradually eroded, Bradley and other former dam safety officials said. In 2014, the program had a budget of $260,000, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. DHEC said the agency had $453,000 budgeted for its dam safety program in 2014-15.

The lack of resources led to criticism that DHEC wasn’t keeping close track of dams the agency regulates.

In the wake of this month’s floods, Gov. Nikki Haley and DHEC officials say they now are reviewing the program after more than three dozen dams failed across South Carolina. The agency has hired HDR Engineering, an international engineering and architectural company, to help it assess the dam safety program and any needed improvements.

Under South Carolina law, the state only regulates dams that are at least 25 feet tall or hold back at least 50 acre-feet, or 16.3 million gallons, of water. Those that don’t meet those requirements are not regulated, unless state officials believesmaller dams and lakes threaten public safety, Read said.

When dams are regulated, the state is supposed to inspect the dams periodically and recommend improvements if it finds problems.

Without regulation, the maintenance and stability of a dam is up to the people who own them.

Sometimes, that falls on property owners associations that don’t always have the time or the money to properly manage dams, experts say.

That’s the case on parts of Gills Creek, where most dams are privately owned and maintained by people who live along a string of lakes.

Gills Creek Watershed director Erich Miarka said the state should consider bringing unregulated dams in urban areas under government oversight because of the potential risk to people and property.

Those smaller dams can still have painful impacts on adjacent property if they fail, Miarka and Tschantz agreed.

“Every dam should be regulated if you are in what is considered an urban setting, or if you are maybe less than a mile upstream from an urban setting, something like that,’’ Miarka said. “There should at least be a record of the dam somewhere.’’

Bradley said he remembers an unregulated dam in the Orangeburg area that flooded a nearby highway. The dam had an emergency spillway, used to carry away excess water after heavy rains, into the highway.

After a heavy rain, the excess water caused traveling cars to hydroplane, he said. Bradley said the dam design would not have been allowed if it had been regulated.

“That owner should have been responsible for redirecting the flow of water,’’ Bradley said.

Pine Tree blowoutAmong the unregulated dams that failed during the Oct 4. storm was the Pine Tree Dam, a tree-covered earthen structure in northeast Richland County off Trenholm Road Extension.

Several property owners who live on Pine Tree Lake said they tried to take care of the dam through the years, but it was not easy.

Some of the work included managing water levels in the lake, which involves manually pulling open floodgates to release water. That’s important to keep water from overtopping and eroding the dam during storms.

Paul Lawrence, a Yorkhouse Road resident, said lakeside landowners were unwilling to put up money for management of the dam and lake. Lawrence said he is the former president of a lakeside property owners group that recently disbanded.

“Everybody wants to live on the lake, but no one wanted to take responsibility for it,’’ Lawrence said.

It was unclear whether anyone tried to lower water levels in the 13-acre lake before the Oct. 4 storm to reduce pressure on the dam.

It also is not known when the dam actually broke. Early reports indicated the dam broke the morning of Oct. 4, but some property owners around the lake are now saying the dam broke later in the afternoon.

Either way, the failure of the dam sent water pouring out of Pine Tree Lake and down Jackson Creek above Decker Boulevard. One resident who lives just below the dam had extensive damage to her home, although it isn’t known whether the failed dam or water overtopping the structure did the most damage.

Decker, a major connection between Two Notch Road and Interstate 77, suffered some of the most significant flooding in the storm.

On Decker, people were trapped in cars as floodwaters rose the morning of Oct. 4. Fire and rescue officials saved some of those motorists. Decker Boulevard was closed for two weeks while undergoing repairs. It finally reopened last week. At this point, it remains unclear what impact the Pine Tree dam break had on the breach at the Cary Lake dam, which reportedly occurred in the morning.

Property records show that Pine Tree Lake is owned by the Pine Tree Lake Co. LLC. Richland County property records show the land along the lake not owned by individual homeowners is owned by the Pine Tree Hunt Club. That club is a nonprofit social organization, according to a federal tax form.

William Haseldon, the treasurer for the Pine Tree Hunt Club, maintained that the lake was kept in good order through the years “by certain residents and the owners.’’ Asked by The State newspaper about plans for the blown-out dam, Haseldon said in an email that he has “no clear picture as to what we can or cannot do from a regulatory perspective.’’

He also said the dam broke the afternoon of Oct. 4 after receiving a “large flow of water from the area and upstream Windsor Lake.’’

Other unregulated damsThe dam at Pine Tree lake isn’t the only unregulated dam in South Carolina that might have failed during the Oct. 4 storm.

Aerial imagery, compiled by Dayton, Ohio-headquartered Woolpert Inc. and used by state officials to assess damage, show that at least three other lakes in the Columbia area lost water after the storm hit, according to a review by The State newspaper. These lakes were not identified by DHEC in the list of 16 broken dams in Richland County.

Empty lakes showing up on the Woolpert aerial photographs, taken two days after the storm, include: an unnamed pond between Clemson Road and Spears Creek Church road in northeast Richland County; a pond commonly called Arcadia Lake, behind North Trenholm Baptist Church in the town of Arcadia Lakes; and a pond near Meadow Glen Middle School in Lexington County.

Sid Havird, whose family owns Arcadia Lake, acknowledged damage to an emergency overflow area at the unregulated dam from the storm, but says he drained the lake after the spillway blew out so he could make repairs. A hole could be seen in the dam structure from a road beside the drained lake, but Havird said the dam remains intact.

Tschantz said he doesn’t know the particular circumstances in Columbia, but some unregulated dams across the country fall into disrepair because of neglect.

“Homeowners a lot of times are only interested in their own property,” he said. “Then they finally discover ‘Hey, we are responsible for the darned dam. We are faced with a $300,000 bill to (improve it).’

“I can tell you they are going to find a political solution to deal with the problem first.”

S.C. unregulated dams

South Carolina has 10,000 to 20,000 dams that are not regulated or inspected by the state government, officials say. South Carolina regulates 2,400 dams. Here’s a list of regulated dams, ranked by the top counties.

1. Greenville – 151

2. Spartanburg – 147

3. Orangeburg – 142

4. Aiken – 141

5. Lexington – 114

6. Richland – 112

6. Calhoun – 112

8. Edgefield – 105

9. Chesterfield – 95

10. Laurens – 92

SOURCE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Inventory of Dams