SC agency orders lake levels dropped behind 63 dams

Flood waters overtop Spring Lake dam Oct. 4 during historic rains in Columbia.
Flood waters overtop Spring Lake dam Oct. 4 during historic rains in Columbia. sfretwell@thestate.com

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has ordered the owners of potentially dangerous dams to lower lake levels or drain their lakes completely by Tuesday, according to agency records released Friday night.

The agency’s emergency orders require action at 63 lakes and ponds across South Carolina, including 28 in Richland County and four in Lexington County.

Columbia-area ponds where water levels must be lowered include Forest Lake, Lake Katherine, Spring Lake, Hughes Pond and Windsor Lake, records show. Other ponds included in DHEC’s order, however, already had lost water because their dams burst as a result of the Oct. 4 flood.

Thousands of people live on or near the affected lakes. Many of the lakes are privately owned, as are the dams that hold water back.

The department issued the orders Thursday. It released them Friday night on its website.

The action follows torrential rains and flooding earlier this month that caused more than three dozen dams in South Carolina to break, including at least 17 in Richland County.

More than 17 inches of rain dropped on parts of Columbia. The resulting flood staggered South Carolina’s capital city, crippling the area’s water supplies and causing thousands of people to flee their homes. Ten people caught in the flooding died in the metro Columbia area.

“As a result of the 1,000-year flood, many dams across our state were damaged and have been identified as needing repair,” DHEC director Catherine Heigel said in a news release Friday night. “DHEC remains committed to ensuring public safety and will be aggressive in pursuing all necessary safety measures to make sure that dam owners are making these needed repairs as quickly as possible.”

DHEC’s orders include language saying the department has “determined that the referenced dam appears unsafe and a potential danger to life and/or property. It has been determined that it is necessary that immediate maintenance action be undertaken by the dam owner to prevent failure of the dam and potential loss of life and/or serious damage to property.”

Orders say property owners must lower lake levels by Tuesday, have the dam inspected and submit an action plan to DHEC by Oct. 30.

It was unknown how property owners associations that own many of the dams would react. But some already have contacted attorneys, in anticipation of legal issues that are arising over broken or overtopped dams.

Lisa Sharrard Jones, a Columbia consultant and former state flood-mitigation coordinator, said she supports DHEC’s action.

“I don’t see this as a bad thing, it’s a good thing,” she said. “These are earthen dams.”

Department officials said Friday’s announcement follows an agency assessment of all high-hazard and significant-hazard dams in South Carolina. So far, 390 dams have been evaluated. The agency has a goal of looking at more than 600 dams before the end of the month.

The department’s news release said the owners’ decisions to repair or replace dams will be subject to agency review and approval. DHEC said it will prioritize review of dam-permit applications associated with the natural disaster. The permitting for repairs could take days to weeks, depending upon the complexity of the repairs that need to be made, the department said.

In an email Friday night, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Read said DHEC attempted to notify all lake owners and lake associations affected before releasing the documents.

“DHEC has either contacted or attempted to contact by phone each dam owner that has received a written emergency order,” Read said. “Additionally, DHEC attempted to hand-deliver copies of the emergency orders to many of the dam owners Thursday.”

Some lakes affected by the DHEC orders have no water. Their dams broke in the storm. Among those is Cary Lake, a 56-acre residential pond off Trenholm Road in Columbia. The only water running in that lake is the old stream, which meanders through the lake bed.

The water level at other lakes affected, including Lake Katherine and Spring Lake, was noticeably lower Saturday.