South Carolina’s long-standing struggle to protect the public from unstable dams will be highlighted at a meeting today on whether some Arcadia Lakes residents must fix an aging dam state regulators say is hazardous to people downstream.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control ordered Arcadia Woods Lake drained two months ago after finding it was unsafe. The department also ordered lake owners to inspect and repair the earthen dam near their homes.
But some Arcadia Woods Lake property owners say they don’t own the dam and can’t afford to pay to fix it. Lake property owners have lowered the water level but haven’t drained the lake completely.
Draining the lake could hurt property values, while increasing the number of mosquitoes in what could become a swamp, several said Wednesday. Already, one couple has had difficulty selling property along the lake, said Bernie Gaudi, a neighbor who lives in the lakeside neighborhood between North Trenholm and Two Notch roads.
The DHEC board is expected to discuss the emergency order and how to resolve the disagreement at today’s 2 p.m. meeting.
Gaudi said repairing the dam is the responsibility of its owners, who don’t live on the lake. Their names could not be verified Wednesday.
“We can’t do anything because we don’t own the dam,” Gaudi said, noting that fixing the 80-year-old structure could cost money he and his neighbors don’t have.
Gaudi and Peggy Smith, president of the Arcadia Woods Lake owners group, questioned why the S.C. Department of Transportation isn’t responsible for some of the repairs. The DOT maintains a road running across the top of the dam, Smith said. DOT officials did not respond to questions from The State seeking comment.
The dispute isn’t unique to Gaudi’s neighborhood. Many small, private dams across the state and nation were built decades ago to create lakes, either for agricultural purposes or as amenities to home sites. But finding a dam’s owners to make repairs is sometimes difficult. Other times, the owner can’t afford to pay tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade a dam.
That leaves property owners below dams at risk of being flooded out – an occurrence that has happened periodically through the years.
South Carolina has about 150 high-hazard dams and another 450 that present a significant risk to the public if they break, according to state records reviewed last year by The State newspaper. The Arcadia Lakes dam is one of 37 “high hazard” dams in Richland County, which was tops in the state in potentially dangerous dams, records show.
Dave Hargett, an adjunct professor at Clemson University who has researched dam safety issues, said many small dams were built to last 50 years but have extended beyond their design life without maintenance.
“These are public infrastructure assets that become liabilities if they are not maintained,” said Hargett, who is leading efforts to maintain a dam on Greenville County’s Lake Conestee.
DHEC has been criticized in the past for failing to inspect the state’s dams. South Carolina has more than 2,000 regulated dams. DHEC regulates the small ones. The agency has one of the lowest budgets in the country for the program. But in this case, Hargett said DHEC appears to have identified a problem.
Questions about the Arcadia Woods Lake dam surfaced earlier this year, when a landowner who lives below the dam asked town officials whether it was in proper condition, records show. Trees and brush were growing in the bank, which can destabilize a dam, records show. The dam forms one of numerous ponds in Arcadia Lakes and Forest Acres.