Some small lakes across South Carolina continued draining Tuesday as property managers raced to meet a state deadline to lower water levels behind what regulators called potentially unstable dams.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control did not have a count of how many of the 75 dams under an emergency order had met the agency’s 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline. But water levels were down this week at a string of well-known residential ponds in the Columbia area, including Spring Lake, Lake Katharine and Forest Lake.
Not every lake had finished lowering water levels. One dam manager said it would take at least two weeks to comply with DHEC’s order.
John Cooper, whose company manages the Windsor Lake dam in Northeast Richland, said releasing water too quickly from the lake could flood property downstream.
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“I certainly understand where they are coming from and I’m in full agreement these lakes need to be drained,’’ Cooper said. “But Windsor Lake is an old system. You can’t just immediately drain 80 acres of water.’’
Paul Lawrence, who lives downstream from Windsor Lake, said the dam has flaws that need repair. “I feel better that people are starting to draw down the lake, although two weeks is a long time for that body of water to sit like that,’’ he said.
Cooper said the dam is generally in good shape but agreed minor repairs are needed. A 2010 DHEC inspection report praised maintenance work on the dam since a previous review, according to documents provided by the agency last week.
Cooper and other dam owners involved in DHEC’s order also must provide an inspection report and action plan to the agency by Oct. 30.
DHEC’s emergency order follows an Oct. 4 flood that swamped hundreds of homes, destroyed cars and washed out more than three dozen dams across South Carolina, most of them in the Midlands. Some motorists caught in the flood died.
The flood highlighted questions about the state’s regulation of dams and sparked DHEC to inspect 652 high-hazard and significant hazard-dams across the state. That review is nearly completed.
DHEC’s order Thursday to lower lake levels and develop plans to fix dams applies to about 75 bodies of water across South Carolina, nearly half of them in Richland and Lexington counties.
The agency’s order didn’t have much immediate impact on 17 lakes in Richland because their dams burst and water drained out as a result of the deluge.
But dams at another 11 lakes in Richland County, which withstood the storm, appeared “unsafe and a potential danger to property,’’ according to emergency orders by DHEC. Some dam owners began lowering lake levels over the weekend to comply with the order.
DHEC spokeswoman Jennifer Read said Tuesday after the deadline passed that her agency will take “necessary actions’’ for any dam owner who does not lower lake levels and take other steps to comply with the department’s orders.
That could include hiring a contractor to do the work and billing the dam owner, she said. Owners who do not comply could be hit with penalties of $500 per day until problems are fixed as well as $1,000 fines for violating an order, Read said.
Tim Kana, president of the Lake Katharine Homeowners Association, said his organization is happy to comply with the order. While the dam survived the Oct. 4 storm, it only makes sense to lower water levels and inspect the structure, he said.
“It needs to be done,’’ Kana said. “We were going to lower the lake anyway. We wanted to see the extent of any minor damage. We are anxious to repair it.’’
An inspector retained by the homeowners association looked over the Lake Katharine dam Tuesday, Kana said.
Many of the lakes with what DHEC calls potentially unsafe dams are in the Gills Creek watershed. The watershed includes a string of community ponds running through Columbia, Forest Acres and Arcadia Lakes. Many of the ponds are surrounded by high-end homes, purchased by people looking for lakefront property decades ago.
Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley said lower water levels are a concern to many residents in the Gills Creek watershed. The lakes help maintain property values and provide tax revenues that benefit the public, he said. The lakes are “a part of the community — the whole community,’’ Huguley said. “So people are very anxious about this. I think they share a feeling of loss.’’