FEMA money unlikely to rebuild private dams, Heigel says

A road runs across the Windsor Lake dam in northeast Richland County.
A road runs across the Windsor Lake dam in northeast Richland County. Sammy Fretwell/The State

Prospects are dim that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay to fix private dams that crumbled during a devastating storm in South Carolina earlier this month, the state’s environmental protection agency chief said Wednesday.

Catherine Heigel, who heads the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said FEMA might pay to restore public roads across dams, but not to repair or replace the dams themselves.

FEMA’s position is that “the dam is the private property owners’ responsibility to be rebuilt,’’ Heigel said during a Senate hearing in Columbia. “Then once that’s done, they’ll pay for the road repair.’’

The issue is a big one in the Columbia area, where up to 23 dams broke as a result of the Oct. 4 storm that contributed to flooding. At least six of those dams were in the Gills Creek watershed, an area dominated by a chain of private residential ponds from northeast Richland County to the Congaree River.

Many lakeside owners are pushing for federal money to repair the private dams, arguing, among other things, that the small lakes control flooding and the earthen dams are needed to support public roads across them. But skeptics question whether many of the dams should be rebuilt – particularly with federal funds – because they support private ponds that have changed the natural ecosystem.

“We will continue to work that issue and try to find a path to resolution,’’ Heigel said. “I don’t know what the answer ultimately is going to be on that for these private dam owners.’’

After the Senate meeting, FEMA spokesman Harry “Leo’’ Skinner said the agency doesn’t usually provide money to repair private dams, although it will provide matching money for roads. Skinner said FEMA might pay to build a bridge in the spot where a dam once supported a road, but the new bridge could not exceed the cost of putting the road back to its original condition.

Wednesday’s hearing, called to examine flood relief efforts in South Carolina, also provided other details about the state’s struggles with aging, earthen dams that broke or were damaged as a result of the Oct. 4 deluge. All told, 36 dams burst across South Carolina, according to DHEC, although several other non-regulated dams that broke have been identified by The State newspaper. South Carolina has about 2,400 regulated dams, most of which are owned privately.

Two weeks ago, DHEC ordered the owners of 75 ponds to lower water levels. Heigel said her agency had been forced to pump water out of some of those ponds because the owners did not follow DHEC’s directive.

Heigel also told senators that public efforts to stabilize northeast Richland’s Beaver Dam in the days immediately after the storm actually caused problems for another dam downstream at Silver Lake. She did not provide details, but said the problems show how interconnected the Gills Creek watershed is.

The HDR Engineering firm is assessing the Gills Creek system for Heigel’s agency. As it stands now, the system is not managed cohesively. Dams in many cases are owned by private residents’ associations that are “somewhat disorganized,’’ Heigel said.

That’s part of the reason some dam owners did not comply with DHEC’s orders to lower lake levels by Oct. 20, she said. Some questioned whether they have the authority to do so, she said. She did not say how many lakes DHEC had pumped out, but told the committee work was ongoing Wednesday in Saluda, Richland and Anderson counties. Dam owners have until Friday to come up with new plans on what to do with the damaged and failed dams.