The impact of the powerful flood earlier this month greets Anita Owens every time she looks off her back porch.
Cary Lake, a 56-acre residential pond that Owens lives on, isn’t the familiar waterway she always has known. A dam blew out during Columbia’s historic Oct. 4 flood, transforming Cary Lake into a sun-baked mud flat with only a small channel meandering through the old pond bed.
“I do think they should rebuild the dam,” Owens said last week. “Our children used to swim in the lake years ago.
“Now, we just enjoy the quiet. You’d think you were out in the middle of the country when you look at it.’’
The question of when, how – or whether – to rebuild dams has become a major point of discussion as the Columbia area continues to struggle with the effects of a flood so powerful that people fled their homes from the rapidly rising water.
So far, regulators say more than three dozen dams in South Carolina failed after the torrent.
At least 17 of those were in Richland County, many in the Gills Creek watershed that runs through Forest Acres and Columbia. In addition to the dam on Cary Lake, dams also blew out on Upper Rockyford and Lower Rockyford lakes, as well as Semmes Pond on Fort Jackson. The Pine Tree Dam, which is not regulated by the state, also failed, sending water down Jackson Creek to Cary Lake.
Property owners where dams broke say they miss the placid waters that kept their property values up, while providing places to kayak, fish or just enjoy the view.
Thousands of people live on a string of residential lakes from northeast Richland County to below Fort Jackson. The lakes are the centerpieces of their neighborhoods, where towns – Arcadia Lakes, Forest Acres – take their names from their surroundings.
Others, however, see the lakes and their failed or tottering dams as a threat to thousands more who live downstream.
Safety concerns for those downstream
Many, including some lakeside property owners, want any dams that are rebuilt to be bulked up so they can better withstand future floods.
Dam breaks are suspected of contributing to flooding that sent water rising inside homes in the King’s Grant neighborhood and in the Lake Katherine areas, as well as washing out parts of Decker Boulevard, Garners Ferry Road and Lower Beltline Boulevard.
Stronger dams would save lives and property downstream from dangerous floods that could result from future failures, said Gerrit Jobsis, who is with the environmental group American Rivers. That’s particularly important because Earth’s climate is changing and more frequent storms, such as the one that recently hit Columbia, are expected, he said.
“We want to make sure people who live down from these dams are safe and that any action taken to rebuild dams is done to the highest levels, to 21st century standards – not the standards by which they were built previously,” said Jobsis, American Rivers’ Southeastern regional director.
Jobsis predicted it could take months to sort out all the issues that resulted from the broken dams in the Columbia area. His group may weigh in on some requests to rebuild dams, although Jobsis said it is too early to know.
The state of South Carolina also will weigh in. Before the flood, the state spent only about $250,000 a year to regulate more than 2,000 dams statewide.
After the flood, however, the state is signaling that dam regulation will be a higher priority. Thursday, it ordered the lakes behind more than 60 dams statewide drained or lowered by Tuesday until engineers can certify their safety.
Many of the dams in the Gills Creek watershed likely were constructed 50 to 100 years ago out of what some engineers say were inferior materials. Taller dams with more clay and better compaction might hold up better in the future, they say.
Owens’ next-door neighbor, Catherine Cook, said she understands arguments for stronger dams. She also said lakes should be managed in a coordinated way so that water can be released efficiently before a major storm hits. Releasing water before storms, suggested by state regulators in early October, reduces the chances of flooding later.
“With the technology we have now and the knowledge, it seems like they should be coordinated to alleviate this massive rush of water on our neighbors downstream,” she said.
Rebuilding better? Get a new permit
How quickly a dam could be rebuilt – and to what standard – depends on the government agency overseeing the work.
Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said dams already permitted by that agency could be rebuilt to the same standard without any further approval from the Corps.
But anyone wanting to rebuild a dam to a higher, sturdier standard likely would need a Corps permit. That could take months to receive, officials acknowledged last week.
“If they are going to put it back exactly as it was, they are already covered under their old permit,” Corps spokeswoman Glenn Jeffries said. “If they decide, ‘Hey I’m going to make this a little better, I want to enhance it, I want to change it,’ then you need a permit.”
The Corps could issue a fast-track permit or require an individual permit, depending on the circumstance, she said. Those who want to rebuild dams also could face a tougher road under S.C. law.
The state’s dams and reservoirs safety act requires a permit for any new dam that is a certain height and holds back a certain amount of water.
The state law does not list specific design standards for dams, but it does say they should be done in accordance with “good engineering practices.” Dam designs developed by the Corps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the U.S. Department of the Interior are some of the designs that would be accepted, according to the law.
Officials with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates dams, did not directly answer questions when asked how they would oversee construction of new dams to replace the ones that were lost or heavily damaged. The agency said a state water quality permit may be needed.
While state law requires permits for new dams, the Corps has launched temporary procedures to make repairing existing dams easier.
On Oct. 7, the Corps said it would approve “emergency” permit requests in 24 to 48 hours in cases where people’s lives are in danger or they face a significant loss of property or a “significant economic hardship.”
Meanwhile, DHEC said Friday night that it had issued 63 emergency orders Thursday requiring owners of 63 dams to lower lake levels because the structures are considered unsafe. DHEC wants the owners to fix their dams, the agency said.
Private dams, taxpayer money?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to rebuilding dams is money.
Many ponds and lakes in Richland County are owned by property owners associations. Those groups must decide how much they can afford to pay to make repairs or to replace dams. A new dam could cost anywhere from $300,000 to more than $1 million, several engineers told The State newspaper last week.
Discussions are underway over whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide money for either reconstruction or repairs on privately owned dams.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, said that’s a thorny question.
“I’m not going to kid you, it’s tricky,” Lourie told a crowd of more than 300 last week during a flood-disaster meeting in Arcadia Lakes. “Typically, the public assistance is available for public governments. A lot of these dams, as we know, are owned by private lake owner associations.”
Lourie noted that many of the dams have public roads running across them. He drew applause when Lourie said he would argue “till the cows come home that those dams need to be paid for with federal assistance.”
FEMA spokesman Harry Skinner said his agency does not generally approve using taxpayer money to repair or replace privately owned dams. But, he added, “there is a possibility” a dam could be covered under certain circumstances.
Skinner also said the U.S. Small Business Administration might be able to make loans to property owners associations to fix or replace dams.
Anita Owens and some of her neighbors on Cary Lake say they realize the issue of rebuilding dams will be complex. Until the issue is resolved, they will look sadly at what was once a lake – and hope the water one day will return.
“I’d like to sit here the rest of my life and look at the water,” Owens said.