Not long after moving to Columbia from Montana, Caitlin Turner looked for a beach on Lake Murray where she could relax and swim.
But Turner, 28, didn’t find much in the way of public access. She quickly learned that Lake Murray has only one public beach along its 650-mile shoreline. Beach goers are relegated to a strip of sand near the dam that gets so congested on summer days visitors sometimes wait in line to get in.
The lake’s lack of beaches should come as no surprise to long-time Columbia residents.
Lake Murray, a nearly 48,000-acre reservoir built in the early 20th century, has fewer public beaches than any of South Carolina’s largest recreational lakes. And unlike some other Carolinas lakes, there are no plans to add public beaches anytime soon.
Located in one of South Carolina’s biggest metropolitan areas, Lake Murray has developed almost exclusively as a place for waterfront property owners and boaters to enjoy.
On hot summer weekends it’s easy to see power boats zooming around the lake or sailboats moving placidly along its waters. Many times those boats pull up to islands in the lake, where people swim from the isolated shores. Along the mainland, people swim from private beaches or docks that extend from high-end homes.
That should be evident Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer, when Lake Murray again is a hub of activity.
For people who don’t own lakeside real estate or boats, about the only places to swim — other than the beach at the Lake Murray dam — are makeshift spots they learn about. But that’s not ideal.
Those places sometimes put people perilously close to boat traffic. At the same time, trying to swim in those areas can get people booted off the property by angry landowners.
When Turner wants to avoid crowds, she searches for any open and accessible stretch of shoreline. She’ll look at a map and find a road that runs close to the water, then hike down to the shoreline and swim. She always tries to ask property owners if it is all right to visit the water there, she said.
The public also can swim at Dreher Island State Park near Chapin, but the park doesn’t have a sandy beach. Swimming often entails jumping from a grassy bank into the water.
That leaves the sandy shoreline at the dam as the only official swimming beach, a spot that attracts 100,000 people to Lake Murray each year, according to Dominion Energy, the utility that runs the reservoir.
Turner said she’s grateful for the beach at the dam, but “This place does get really busy on the weekends, so it would be good to add another one.’’
Dominion Energy, the Virginia power company that bought SCE&G this year, says it plans to establish more public parks at Lake Murray as part of a new federal license agreement for the Lake Murray dam. It will continue to work with interest groups to help determine what form of recreation will be offered, spokesperson Nicole Smith wrote in an email.
But for now, more beaches aren’t on the agenda.
“The company does not have any current plans to develop another beach area on Lake Murray,’’ Dominion said in a recent email to The State, declining to elaborate.
While constructing a new beach could be accomplished — it would involve acquiring permits, spreading sand on Lake Murray’s naturally muddy shoreline and establishing parking and restrooms — the effort would require more than construction.
It would require support from lakeside property owners. And that could be politically difficult.
‘A lake, not a beach’
Fully 60% of Lake Murray’s shoreline is privately owned, which sets up potential conflicts if efforts ever arose to establish another public beach.
Homeowners might balk at any plan for a beach that would disrupt the neighborhoods they’ve invested in, said state Rep. Chip Huggins, a Lexington County Republican who represents part of Lake Murray.
Four years ago, property owners in the Ballentine area complained after learning that Richland County had purchased land on the lake for use by the public.
Residents blasted the county for keeping the plan secret for months, but residents also voiced concerns over whether a public recreation area would make traffic congestion worse in their neighborhood. One property owner said the planned access area would allow the neighborhood to be “invaded by so many cars, trucks, boats and noise.’’
“Boy, oh boy, if that wasn’t an absolute debacle,’’ Huggins told The State, noting that additional public beaches could result in more litter on Lake Murray and create headaches for law enforcement.
“This is a lake, not a beach,’’ Huggins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone indicate that we need more beaches on Lake Murray.’’
Garnering support to create public beaches is more difficult now than it would have been a few decades ago, said Otis Rawl, president and chief executive of the Greater Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center. There is a strong sense of territorialism from folks who live along the lake and say “Not in my backyard,’’ said Rawl, who grew up in Lexington County.
“It’s almost like building a waste facility or a school,” he said, “That probably would have been easier to do 20 or 30 years ago.”
Still, he and others say more public swimming beaches would be attractions for Lake Murray.
Former Chapin Mayor Stan Shealy and Les Tweed, a leader with the Ballentine Civic Association, said the key is finding the right spot. Not only would more beaches make additional space for those who don’t have boats or waterfront property, but it could be a destination for visitors to the Columbia area, they said.
“It would be a good thing,’’ Shealy said. “We (in Chapin) call ourselves the capital of Lake Murray, but there’s not much public beach access to the lake.”
Miriam Atria, head of the Capital City Lake Murray Country tourism agency, said there is a “tremendous need” for more public access.
Some beaches closed
Lake Murray used to have more beaches.
Dreher Island State Park once had a swimming beach for visitors. But the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism stopped maintaining the beach years ago after saying it could not find enough lifeguards to staff the beach.
Swimming is still allowed, but it is “at your own risk,’’ said Dawn Dawson-House, a spokeswoman for the parks department.
Well before the lake became a spot for new, high-dollar homes, the popular Jake’s Landing area also had a sandy public beach. In the early 1970s, people would pay $1 per car to visit the beach and an adjacent campground, said Archie Trawick, who runs Jake’s Landing.
That changed, ironically, when SCE&G established the beach by the dam in 1972, Trawick said. He said more people began visiting the power company beach, ultimately forcing him to shut down his own swimming area to the public.
“We couldn’t compete with that,” he said. “We have to do things that people are willing to pay for.”
Now, Trawick only maintains a private beach for residents of his landing property.
One resident, John Tingen, said relatives always let him access the lake from their property, but after a death in the family, “that access went away.” Ultimately, Tingen said he and his wife bought an $18,000 mobile home near the lake, complete with a private beach and “sunset views.”
“I hope to be here on the lake until I have to go to assisted living,” he said.
One reason Lake Murray doesn’t have a lot of beach access may center on the utility that owned the lake for decades. S.C. Electric & Gas Co. was an investor-owned utility whose primary mission was to provide power and a good investment for stockholders. Dominion also is investor-owned.
In contrast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages lakes Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond on the Georgia border, and state-owned Santee Cooper manages lakes Marion and Moultrie between Columbia and Charleston. Because the Corps and Santee Cooper are public agencies, spokespeople said they have a duty to provide ample public access — which includes beaches.
Lakes Marion, Thurmond, Moultrie, Hartwell, Russell and Keowee all provide more public beaches than Lake Murray, according to Corps and power company statistics.
The Corps says Lake Thurmond has 48 public beaches and Hartwell has 23. The Corps also says it has two public beaches on Lake Russell, a much younger lake than the other two the agency manages. Lake Marion has seven public beaches, while Lake Moultrie has five, according to Santee Cooper.
“We are congressionally mandated, as a mission, to enhance recreation,’’ said Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Corps in Savannah.
Corps of Engineers lakes, unlike utility lakes, also maintain a “collar” of public land along the immediate shorelines. While private homes can be built along Corps lakes, ownership does not extend to the waterline.
In some cases, the Corps leases land to the state or local governments to operate parks and beaches. On Lake Hartwell, the city of Anderson maintains a beach off of U.S. 178.
Even Duke Energy, which like Dominion is an investor-owned utility, says it is planning to add at least six more swimming beaches to some of its North Carolina lakes, as well as Lake Wylie near Rock Hill and Lake Wateree north of Columbia.
Lake Wateree, which now has one beach, will get two more by 2022, Duke spokeswoman Kim Crawford said. The first will be added at Molly Creek next year, she said. Lake Wylie near Rock Hill also is slated to get two more swim beaches, the company says.
(South Carolina’s ocean beaches are naturally sandy stretches of shoreline that are abundant and open to the public.)
Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper, said anyone who manages a lake should look for ways to help the public gain access to the water. And beaches are the best way to do that, said Bonitatibus, whose organization keeps up with issues on lakes Thurmond, Hartwell and Russell.
“For the vast majority of people, how they interact with the water is in a beach situation,’’ she said. “It is not fair when the only people able to access a public waterway are the ones rich enough to afford it.’’
No swimming at boat ramps
Of Lake Murray’s nearly 650 miles of shoreline, 392 miles are privately owned.
There are more than 10,000 lakefront homes on Lake Murray, according to county data on real estate multiple-listing services. A quarter of Lake Murray homes on the market this spring cost more than half a million dollars, according to a nationwide market report generated by Lake Homes Realty.
The other 257 miles of shoreline, or 40 percent, are owned by Dominion.
Lake Murray has 11 parks with boat ramps. People sometimes swim near those boat ramps, even though they are not supposed to. State law prohibits swimming within 50 feet of boat landings.
Some of that property still owned by Dominion will be used in coming years to expand existing public parks and access points.
About 1,400 acres of land will be used to create six new park sites on the south side of the lake, three on the north side, as well as three new park sites along the lower Saluda River, according to Dominion. An additional 45 acres will be used to expand six existing public access points.
Still, none of the land will be set aside for a beach., according to existing plans. The power company did not say why it has no plans for another beach at Lake Murray, but the company said its future lake plans were developed after meetings with property owners and interest groups through the years.
Rawl, the Lexington chamber executive, said an obvious spot for a public beach would be at a place known to boaters as Sandy Beach. Located on a peninsula on the Lexington side of the lake, the area has historically been accessible only to people driving boats.
“A lot would have to be done, but a lot of people already are using it,’’ Rawl said. “It’s just a matter of whether or not you work out the little nuances to get it open and get it where it could be enjoyed from the land side, as well as the water side.’’
Dominion also maintains Pine Island, an island with a private beach now accessible only to power company employees, retirees of the company and their guests.
Atria, head of the lake tourism organization, said a public version of Pine Island could be a major selling point.
“It would stay booked year-round,” she said.
But without any plans for another beach, swimming at the lake will be limited to those who can afford a boat or waterfront land — or who can squeeze into the one beach at the dam.
Steve Fisher said that when he moved to Columbia from California 15 years ago, he immediately noticed Lake Murray wasn’t designed to prioritize public access. A paddle boarding summer camp owner and teacher, Fisher said he once was told he was trespassing when he and his campers went ashore near a lakeside business.
“I’ve always been a poor guy, a schoolteacher, “ he said. “I teach about government and democracy so I bristle at the idea of such a great resource being surrounded by privately-owned property. It seems elitist.”
Shanada Cunningham wouldn’t mind more beach access.
Sitting on the beach at the dam earlier this month, Cunningham, 29, watched her son chase three black ducks by the water. It was the Columbia native’s first time at the beach this year. She plans to come a few more times during the five months it’s open, she said. But not on holidays.
“It’s too busy,” she said.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.
Why did we report this story?
Lake Murray is one of the Midlands’ prized possessions, an asset flaunted by residents, local governments, school districts and developers alike. The area around Lake Murray has also grown tremendously since the early days of the utility-owned reservoir, making it valuable property and an in-demand lifestyle.
But is Lake Murray as accessible as it could be? How does it compare to other South Carolina lakes? Who is left out as the lake becomes increasingly private and residential? And how could the lake’s new owner, Dominion Energy, shape the future of public access? We set out to answer those questions.