Days before a historic storm flooded the Gills Creek watershed, state regulators urged people who oversee dozens of community ponds to drain water so that heavy rains wouldn’t cause dams to break.
Some pond owners scrambled to lift floodgates and release water. Others did not.
As the deluge hit the Columbia-area watershed Oct. 4, at least six dams crumbled. Water sent downstream by the broken dams combined with swollen creeks to flood some neighborhoods and streets. Scores of people had to be rescued by boat from their flooded homes.
No one yet knows for sure what caused dams to fail along the densely populated Gills Creek system. But the lack of coordination between pond owners has many people – including state regulators, legislators and county leaders – saying changes are needed to protect the public in the future.
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Property owners throughout the watershed are discussing whether to form a watershed management district, a quasi-governmental agency that would oversee dams and lakes to make sure they are managed as a unit, rather than individually as they are now. The watershed has about 100 lakes within an approximately 20-mile area, consultants say.
“It’s pretty clear that we could do a better job in managing the lakes and dams and the watershed in general,” Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley said, adding that a district could “improve the coordination and help promote the best management practices we can have in the sort of setting the Gills Creek watershed is in.’’
Catherine Heigel, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, indicated last week that changes are needed in the Gills Creek watershed. Poorly organized homeowner groups often control private dams, she said during a Senate flood response hearing.
Dams in the watershed should be “safer and stronger in the future,’’ Heigel said.
Details of how a watershed management district would operate are far from known, but such a district could employ a staff member to keep track of dams and make sure improvements are made when inspections reveal problems, say some proponents of the concept.
As it stands, some dams inspected by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control had recent histories of problems that were not addressed, records show. That raises questions about DHEC’s enforcement efforts, but it also points to whether homeowners groups focused on making the improvements, which can be expensive.
A watershed district also could coordinate lake withdrawals, helping to decide when and how much to lower lakes when a storm approaches. DHEC asked for withdrawals before the storm, but didn’t provide many details about how to handle such withdrawals in the Gills Creek chain of lakes.
Structurally, a watershed district could have a board and an executive director to replace neighborhood volunteers who now manage the private dams.
The district, which could be formed by the Richland County Council or state lawmakers, could tax residents to pay for the dams’ upkeep.
Richland County Council Vice Chairman Greg Pearce, whose district includes several Gills Creek-area dams, said he could see how a government watershed agency could improve coordination between dam operators.
“We’re just beginning to get a handle on this,” Pearce said. “(The storm) has brought a boatload of questions we don’t have answers for.”
Eroding yards, dead operators
Kevin Hare, 26, isn’t sure whether a watershed management district is needed. But the northeast Richland resident said the existing system of managing dams and lakes didn’t work for him.
Hare lost up to 100 feet of his yard when a spillway blew out at the Lower Rockyford Lake dam the day after the Oct. 4 storm blasted Columbia. About 20 tall pine trees from his yard crashed to the ground as the torrent from the broken spillway ate away at his backyard.
Hare said he noticed problems in the dam weeks before the deluge hit Oct. 4, but wasn’t sure who was in charge of fixing the structure. Unsure whom to call, he contacted the city of Forest Acres, Richland County and the state Department of Transportation about cracks in the spillway that appeared to get worse every day before the storm.
“Nobody did anything,’’ Hare said.
The city of Forest Acres said it would check with the Forest Lake property owners group, he said. But county property records show that the lower Rockyford dam is owned by a company affiliated with homeowners around that lake.
Now, Hare said he’s without the yard that attracted him to buy the home last winter.
“What can we do to remedy this?’’ he asked. “Our investment is at a standstill.’’
It’s unclear what any of the governments he contacted could have done because they do not have direct authority over dam safety issues.
The Gills Creek watershed extends from northeast Richland County to the Congaree River, cutting through a wide chunk of east Columbia, Forest Acres and Arcadia Lakes. Along the creek are a string of lakes and private dams, often operated by organizations of property owners who live along the ponds’ shores. More than 100,000 people live in the Gills Creek watershed.
Problems arise, however, because none of the lake and dam owners’ groups is required to work with each other. And sometimes, these groups aren’t sure where their responsibilities lie.
Dams are one of those responsibilities. These earthen structures were in many cases built generations ago and are getting old. Lake owners groups must figure ways to keep them in good shape and prevent failures, while also managing water levels.
South Carolina is one of just five states that do not spell out owners’ responsibilities for operation and maintenance of dams, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
Gary Cadle is one property owner concerned about how the Gills Creek watershed is managed.
Cadle said he doesn’t remember anyone draining water from the small pond he lives on off of Trenholm Road before the major storm swamped Columbia. Cadle said he also is not sure who was in charge of operating the pond’s floodgates so that water didn’t back up in his neighborhood when the storm hit.
“A buddy of mine … said the guy on the corner used to do it, but he died a few years ago,’’ Cadle said recently.
The morning of the storm, water rose from the small lake into yards. Cadle’s basement flooded, even though he doesn’t live directly on the lake. Part of a dam on a small pond upstream breached and sent a slug of water toward his lake that morning.
State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, said the storm showed her the vital ties between the lakes. She escaped from her home near Forest Lake during the flood and now is looking at $50,000 in repairs. Some dams that did not fail overflowed with excess water.
“These lakes are interdependent on each other,” said Bernstein, who lives just down the road from Hare. “There’s a need for some coordination and cooperation among lake owners.”
Coordinating management of lakes in a watershed often can mean the difference as to whether dams hold up during heavy rains and storms.
Dam safety experts and engineers agree that releasing water from lakes before storms relieves pressure on dams. In turn, that makes it less likely they will break and cause other dams downstream to fall apart.
Hermann Fritz, a Georgia Tech engineering professor who is investigating the cause of the dam failures in the Columbia area, said lowering lake levels before a soaking storm can prevent “a dam break wave.’’
That’s particularly relevant in the Gills Creek watershed, where many dams and lakes exist, one after the other and just a few miles apart, he said.
But water releases take coordination. Releasing water from all the dams at the same time could send out too much water at once. Releases must be done gradually, with some lakes releasing water before others, experts say.
Bruce Tschantz, a Tennessee consultant who formerly ran the dam safety program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said special attention should be given to areas where a series of dams stairstep through a watershed.
“If one dam goes, then the capacity of the lower dam’’ to hold up is threatened, Tschantz said.
Failing dams could have contributed to flooding on Gills Creek, but their culpability is difficult to separate from the more than one foot of rain that fell around Columbia on Oct. 4, said Mark Ogden, a project manager with the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “Maybe the lower dams would not have overtopped if the others upstream (would) not have failed.”
In the end, the owner is responsible for what happens to a dam, Ogden said.
“That’s something that should be in the emergency action plan: If heavy rain is forecast, you need to go out and check the dam,” Ogden said.
Of the historic rain, Ogden added, “I doubt that excuses you from responsibility or liability.” Liability is now an issue for dam owners, who face potential lawsuits over flooding downstream. Some homeowner groups already have contacted attorneys.
DHEC’s Heigel, a former executive with the Duke Energy power company, said experience tells her that coordination is needed in managing lakes.
Heigel’s agency has hired the HDR engineering firm to assess the Gills Creek watershed and recommend improvements. HDR has helped communities across the country with “an aggregation of reservoirs’’ improve management, said Rick Miller, an executive with the engineering firm.
Concepts and taxes
Gills Creek already has a watershed association, but it is an advocacy group focused on raising awareness about a variety of environmental issues in the area, ranging from flooding to pollution and dredging.
But it has no formal enforcement authority, association president Valerie Marcel said. “There has to be some sort of central managing body, with expertise,’’ she said.
DHEC, on the other hand, has limited ability to manage the Gills Creek watershed. The agency regulates 2,370 dams statewide and in recent years has had limited staff to keep track of them all.
Different types of government setups could be used to oversee the Gills Creek watershed.
Some communities, for instance, have watersheds overseen specifically by existing soil conservation districts, said Dave Hargett, a Clemson University adjunct professor involved in managing the Lake Conestee dam near Greenville. One of those exists in Greenville County, he said.
Another type of government is a special purpose district.
Kelly Smith, who heads the S.C. Association of Special Purpose Districts, said that kind of government could be formed for the Gills Creek system.
Richland County could establish a watershed management district if the area were contained completely in the county, he said. Or the Legislature could form a special purpose district if the district crossed the county line, Smith said.
South Carolina has hundreds of special purpose districts, which are governments formed to provide services that local governments have not provided in the past. Many of those are water and sewer districts, like one in eastern Richland County, or fire districts, like one in Irmo. Many operate like county governments in that they have governing boards and can levy fees or taxes on those in the district.
At least two states, Indiana and New Hampshire, have special types of districts that can raise tax money for dam repairs, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials said.
Lakeside property owners Elliott Powell and David Jacobs said they generally like the idea of a watershed management district, but they are concerned about a new government hitting property owners with more taxes.
Jacobs, president of the Lower Rockyford Lake company, said he didn’t want to see “putting a bunch of fees on homeowners.’’ Part of the Lower Rockyford Lake dam blew out during the Oct. 4 storm. He said his group had lowered the lake level and was repairing the dam structure when the storm hit last month.
Powell, who lives in the Lake Katherine area, said he’s concerned about taxes, but “we have got to have a way to bring all these governments to the table.” A watershed district is an important route to pursue, he said. The Lake Katherine dam held up after the storm, but the lake received plenty of rushing water from upstream since it is the lowest major body of water in the Gills Creek chain of lakes.
Huguley said one way to avoid more taxes on property owners is to have Richland County and the cities of Columbia, Arcadia Lakes and Forest Acres provide some funding to operate a watershed district. Many people in the Gills Creek watershed say the area, though dominated by private lakes, provides major tax revenues for the county and helps control flooding.
“If a special purpose district were to be created, it could simply be funded through existing revenue from the municipalities and county government, with state participation as well,’’ Huguley said.
Bernstein is unsure how much of lake owners’ power she wants to cede to a new government management district.
“I don’t want them to lose autonomy,” she said.