Fort Jackson wants to rebuild failed dams as questions continue about safety

A historic 2015 flood blew a gaping hole in Fort Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam. The dam’s safety had been questioned by military officials before the structure burst and flooded millions of dollars in property off the Army base.
A historic 2015 flood blew a gaping hole in Fort Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam. The dam’s safety had been questioned by military officials before the structure burst and flooded millions of dollars in property off the Army base.

COLUMBIA, SC The federal government wants to rebuild Fort Jackson’s Semmes Lake dam, an earthen structure that blew out during a historic 2015 rain storm and sparked a rush of lawsuits by downstream property owners whose homes flooded.

Officials with Fort Jackson and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled the plan at a sparsely attended meeting Wednesday night in Columbia. The government also wants to permanently rebuild a broken dike at Lower Legion Lake, a smaller water body that contributed to flooding in the King’s Grant neighborhood and lower Devine Street areas in October 2015.

Federal plans to rebuild the dams were revealed the same day documents surfaced indicating other dams besides the one at Semmes Lake were in questionable shape two years before the 2015 storm.

Not only was the Semmes Lake dam listed as in “serious’’ condition after federal inspections, but so were four other structures on the fort, according to a Corps of Engineers summary report of dam inspections obtained by The State newspaper. Those dams hold back water at Dupre Pond, Twin Lake, Weston Lake and Upper Legion Lake. Dams with serious ratings could be unsafe and need immediate improvement.

Another dam, at Upper Davis Pond, was listed as in “critical’’ shape, the report said. Dams with critical ratings are in “imminent’’ danger of failure and require immediate or emergency action to resolve problems.

Records obtained last year by The State show military inspectors rated the Semmes Lake dam as hazardous during a 2013 report.

Officials with the Corps and Fort Jackson declined Wednesday to answer questions about why dams failed, citing pending lawsuits against the federal government by downstream property owners. The suits claim millions of dollars in damage.

“Based on the current litigation, we won’t be able to talk details of what’s going on,” said Col. James Ellerson.

But officials with the fort and the Corps were eager to talk about rebuilding dams at Semmes Lake and Lower Legion Lake. The fort hopes to award a construction contract by the fall of 2017. In each case, the Semmes and Lower Legion dams would be reconstructed to a higher standard, although not reinforced with concrete, according to the Corps of Engineers.

Semmes Lake, for instance, would have a better spillway that would be less prone to erosion, Corps officials said.

The spillway would be on the side of the dam, rather than in the middle. A road that runs across the dam would be restored, according to plans

Rebuilding the dam would restore a lake popular for recreation and help retain storm water, fort public works director Ann Garner said.

“This option provides a gathering place for our graduating soldiers and their families,’’ she said. “As with any dams, maintenance and inspection will be required. This is not a final decision.’’

Another option is to allow the lake bed to become a wetland, rather than retaining large amounts of water, but officials said mosquitoes could be a problem under that plan.

A dike at Lower Legion Lake, adjacent to the Fort Jackson golf course, has been temporarily restored, but the structure needs a permanent fix, officials said. Lower Legion is used as an irrigation source for the fort golf course. The fort would prefer not to install a well or pull water from a public water system for irrigation, Garner said.

The public has an opportunity to comment on the federal plan. The first deadline to comment is Jan. 6.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time since the Oct. 4, 2015 storm that Fort Jackson officials had held a public session to discuss the failed Semmes Lake and Lower Legion Lake dams. As it turns out, few people attended – and that irked one resident who did show up.

“There’s nobody here that is from the community because notices weren’t put out,’’ Lake Dogwood resident Monte Lemmon said. “I’m embarrassed for Fort Jackson.’’

Fort officials said they sent a public notice to the media, but could not control attendance.

Dam failures at Fort Jackson have sparked multiple lawsuits by property owners who claim that water pouring off the base during the historic storm flooded their homes. One suit, filed earlier this year, claims $20 million in property damage to homes at the high-end King’s Grant neighborhood adjacent to Fort Jackson.

Pete Strom, a lawyer representing the Kings Grant homeowners, said he doesn’t have a problem with rebuilding dams. But he said the government should not rebuild until it gives experts involved in the litigation a chance to inspect the earthen structures.

“The Army ought to take care of the people they damaged before they go spend the money to repair the dams,’’ Strom said. “One of the things I hope is there will be some transparency, that if they do rebuild, some agency will inspect those dams so the citizens downstream will know they are safe.’’

The October 2015 flood was among the worst Columbia and parts of South Carolina have ever seen. More than 16 inches of rain fell in Columbia on Oct. 4, flooding streets and sending many people fleeing in boats. Dozens of dams broke. The Gills Creek watershed, which includes Semmes Lake, was particularly hard hit. An unusual combination of storms caused the heavy rain.

In addition to King’s Grant, broken dams at Semmes Lake and Lower Legion Lake are blamed for flooding the lower Devine Street area, one of Columbia’s busiest and most commercially developed corridors. Many neighborhoods also are in that section of town. When the flood hit early on the morning of Oct. 4, two people driving through the Devine Street area drowned when their cars ran into rising water.

Jones Andrews, an attorney who is preparing a wrongful death suit, said he recently has filed 20 to 25 lawsuits challenging the fort over the dams’ failure and their impact on houses downstream.

Andrews said any dams rebuilt at the fort should be stronger to avoid the catastrophe that occurred from failures in 2015. The failure of the Semmes Lake dam, for instance, “had a drastic impact downstream,’’ he said. “That’s because they didn’t take care of the dam.’’