Business at Steve Peter’s gas station on Wilson Boulevard has dropped 90 percent since the road atop Lake Elizabeth Dam was washed out during the historic flood in October.
Nearly 8,000 drivers a day take a detour and no longer pass the filling station near the Hard Scrabble Road intersection.
“We were depending on the highway traffic,” Peter said.
The flooding washed out hundreds of roads across South Carolina, the majority of which have been reopened.
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But it is unknown when 23 S.C. roads, including 11 in Richland County, over failed privately owned dams will reopen. More than 14,000 drivers in Richland County have to find new routes because of broken roads over failed dams.
Dam owners, in many cases homeowners associations, are grappling with how to raise money to make repairs. None of the failed dams regulated by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control have submitted repair permit applications, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Transportation says repairing the dams is not the roads agency’s responsibility.
The state budget likely will not include any public money for the private dams.
However, Richland leaders are considering creating special tax districts to raise money for the repairs.
Limited funding sources
Many of the washed out roads atop failed dams are just northeast of Columbia.
Five closed roads in the Arcadia Lakes area went across dams: Arcadia Lakes Drive, Arcadia Lakes Drive East, Eastshore Road, Overcreek Road and Shorebrook Drive.
Rockbridge Road also was broken during the flooding, but because it was a bridge — not a dam — the state Department of Transportation is working to replace it. The new bridge is expected to be complete by June 15.
The broken section of Arcadia Lakes Drive East, which runs over the Cary Lake dam, has isolated about 15 residents. They have been forced to use a makeshift road extending a driveway onto a nearby street to get in and out.
In addition to the commuting inconvenience, home owners on the lakes could see a hefty financial burden in repairing the dams.
The estimated cost to rebuild the dams could range from $500,000 to more than $1 million, said Erich Miarka of the Gills Creek Watershed Association.
Dividing $500,000 among 50 or so homeowners in an association on a lake would mean a cost of $10,000 per homeowner.
“We are aware of limited potential funding sources for dam repairs,” said Cassandra Harris, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not give private homeowners associations money to rebuild their dams, Miarka said.
Some of the homeowner associations have tried to get loans through the Small Business Administration, but were turned down because of issues with putting up collateral, Miarka said. Some of those associations are reapplying, he said.
S.C. Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, has sponsored a bill to create special tax districts to levy taxes on local homeowners for dam repairs.
“Our intention is not to create an additional tax burden on the homeowner, but to provide a revenue stream for the repairs,” Bernstein said.
Richland County Council also agreed this week to look into using special purpose tax districts to raise money to repair the privately owned dams.
Dam owners cannot count on any state tax money because the S.C. House budget-writing panel included nothing in the state’s $7.5 billion general fund budget for repairs.
However, the panel set aside $40 million for a grant program for S.C. farmers who lost crops and money because of the flooding.
House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, does not expect any public money being spent in the state budget for repairs to private dams when the full S.C. House considers spending later this month.
A House proposal to create a $25 million loan program for dam owners filed in January has gone nowhere.
However the House budget panel did approve DHEC’s request for $661,500 for added dam-safety staff.
‘Let’s get it fixed’
Those who often drive on top of the dams say they want to see the roads repaired.
“Let’s get it fixed,” said Joe Sutcliffe who lives about 15 minutes from Wilson Boulevard and often uses the highway.
Sutcliffe wants officials to do whatever they can to get the road repaired — even if that means putting in a bridge over Lake Elizabeth.
“Let it become a creek like the good Lord made it,” Sutcliffe said.
Once the dam owner decides to repair or abandon the dam, the Department of Transportation will analyze the waterway to determine the appropriate type of structure to be used to repair the road, said Andy Leaphart, chief engineer for operations at the agency.
“Since (the Department of Transportation) is using these dams as a foundation for the road, they should be taking a more active role in rebuilding or at least in renovating ... the dams so they can get these roads back,” Miarka said.
But the Department of Transportation does not own or maintain the dams, Leaphart said. The roads or bridges on or adjacent to dams are there by easement, or legal permission to build a road across their property, he said.
To assist dam owners seeking to repair their structures, DHEC has expedited the permitting process, Harris said. “The time to complete a repair is unique to each dam and depends on numerous factors, including the complexity of the repair,” she said.
The environmental agency is working with dam owners to provide technical assistance so they can make final decisions on the future of their dams and start repairs, Harris said.
The flood has sparked some lawsuits against dam owners by downstream property owners who say their property was damaged when dams failed. Because of pending lawsuits, Tom Teuber, president of the Upper Rockyford Lake Homeowners Association, and Karen Jones, director of the Lake Elizabeth association, said they cannot comment on dam repairs.
During October’s flooding, John Fogle, who lives on Wilson Boulevard, said he could not see the guard rail because water from Lake Elizabeth flooded over the dam.
Now, the road has crumbled. A paddle boat, roll-cart trash bin and piece of a vehicle all sit in the dried up woods downstream of the dam.
If there were a timeline for when the road would be repaired, Fogle said his anxiety level would go down.
“I just don’t see any solution on the rise.”
S.C. roads closed by broken dams
Church Camp Road
Community Club Road
Old River Road
Puddin Swamp Road
Rainbow Lake Road
Eddie Watkins Road
Devils Backbone Road
Arcadia Lakes Drive
Arcadia Lakes Drive East
Community Pond Road
Broken S.C. roads atop dams
$0 Amount S.C. House budget panel approved for private dam owners
$661,500 Amount S.C. House budget panel approved for DHEC’s dam safety program for added inspectors
23 Roads closed statewide from October flooding
11 Roads closed in Richland County from October flooding
14,000+ Drivers displaced by broken roads in Richland County
Source: S.C. Department of Transportation, S.C. House Ways and Means budget