In the face of legal and financial questions, some Richland County property owners are preparing for a future without the placid lakes that increased their land values and made life pleasant.
A homeowners’ group at Walden Pond plans to restore a stream by removing the remnants of a dam that fell apart near Clemson Road. Another association is examining whether to take the same steps at Lake Elizabeth on U.S. 21 north of Columbia.
Dams that held back both lakes failed during last October’s historic flood, exposing creeks that today run through grassy mud flats.
Property owners say they miss the water that attracted them to live at Walden Pond and Lake Elizabeth. But building new dams would be expensive, they say. The cost of building a dam like those that broke last fall could easily top $1 million.
“We can’t afford to rebuild it,’’ said Vicky Jenks, a spokeswoman for the Walden Pond homeowners’ group. “We are small potatoes. We don’t have the money, and we are not getting any help. It is very painful.’’
Choosing not to rebuild dams is a significant development in the ongoing story of South Carolina’s worst flooding in decades. More than 1.5 feet of rain fell on parts of the Columbia area as a powerful storm camped for days over the state in early October.
Since the storm, many people have been asking how long it would take to rebuild the 48 state-regulated dams that broke across South Carolina.
Numerous property-owner groups, which own the dams, want to build back so they can restore lakes that provide amenities to their neighborhoods. A lake can increase the value of property by 15 percent to 50 percent, some real estate appraisers say.
So far, state regulators have not received many applications to reconstruct dams as property-owner groups seek to raise money and develop building plans. But several experts said it’s easy to understand why some property owner groups would not rebuild.
Aside from the expense of constructing a new dam, owning one carries substantial liability if the structure ever broke in the future, said Terry Richardson, a well-known S.C. trial lawyer with four decades of experience.
“Long term, there is going to be some liability for dams not being maintained properly,’’ said Richardson, who is not involved in a dam-liability case. “If you build them improperly, you have the exposure. If I was on the homeowners’ association of a dam, I’d want plenty of insurance to cover the risk.’’
Lake Elizabeth property owners already know about that. Downstream residents have sued Lake Elizabeth Estates Inc., claiming the failure to maintain the dam through the years caused it to break and flood property below the structure. Lake Elizabeth denies the allegations.
Rick Miller, an executive with HDR Engineering Inc. in Charlotte, said homeowners’ groups need permits from government agencies, and they’re likely to face stricter construction standards than when dams were built decades ago.
Miller said many dams that failed during last October’s storm had inadequate spillways, or devices to let water overflow during times of high water to relieve pressure on dams.
“Designing and building to today’s standards is more expensive than it was 30 to 40 years ago,’’ said Miller, whose company conducted a study on dam failures in Columbia during the flood. Miller said it easily could cost more than $1 million to build a new community dam like those that failed in the Columbia area.
At Lake Elizabeth, property owners’ association leader Karen Jones confirmed discussions are underway to abandon plans to rebuild the dam because of the expense.
Unlike some ponds in Richland County, such as the 56-acre Cary Lake in the Gills Creek watershed, the 32-acre Lake Elizabeth has relatively few property owners to pay to rebuild a dam. Developed lakeside lots in the area range in value from more than $100,000 to more than $300,000.
Jones said she could not comment further because she had been advised by an attorney not to discuss issues surrounding the broken dam.
The Lake Elizabeth dam failure has been of public interest because the earthen dam formed the roadbed for U.S. 21 north of Columbia. When the dam broke as a result of the Oct. 4 storm and flood, the busy highway crumbled. Motorists have been detoured around the spot since the storm.
Officials with the S.C. Department of Transportation have not repaired the road, saying the agency doesn’t own the dam that runs below the highway.
Andy Leaphart, chief engineer for operations at the department, said that if Lake Elizabeth homeowners don’t rebuild their dam, the highway department most likely would build a bridge over Crane Creek to get traffic flowing again on U.S. 21. Leaphart said his agency has been in discussions with Lake Elizabeth homeowners and environmental groups about the prospect of not rebuilding the dam.
Environmentalists favor restoring the stream that formed the lake. In recent years, dams have become increasingly unpopular among environmentalists because the structures cover up wildlife-rich creeks and wetlands.
Property owners “kind of indicated that they are ready to abandon that dam,’’ Leaphart said. “We are very interested in getting that road back open.’’
Should the stream bed be restored as wetlands, the agency could use that to offset wetlands losses to other road projects that are planned, said Erich Miarka, director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association. The watershed runs through much of the city.
No final decision has been made about the Lake Elizabeth dam.
So far, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has received two applications to remove dams since the storm: one at Walden Pond to take out the remainder of the dam that broke and one for a dam in Greenville County, agency officials said Friday.
Plans filed with DHEC show that part of Spears Creek will be restored by making sure water flows through the site formerly occupied by the Walden Pond dam. It is possible a dam could one day be rebuilt, but Jenks didn’t express much hope that would happen.
Developed lots at Walden Pond today are worth $150,000 to $200,000. But those values could take a hit without water in the lakebed.
Some property owners groups have insurance on dams, but the coverage can be inadequate to cover reconstruction costs. Several property owners groups in Richland County are seeking to raise money by creating special tax districts for dam reconstruction. Among those is the Upper Rockyford Lake dam, which broke Oct. 5. Residents near Upper Rockyford Lake will vote on whether to create a tax district on June 21. Last month, Richland County Council member Greg Pearce asked the council to consider allowing four more homeowners associations to pursue creating special tax districts to pay for dam repairs.
And in southeast Richland County, real estate agent Aylan Brown said his company will pay to reconstruct the Wilson Mill Pond dam so he can sell lots around the 29-acre pond off Leesburg Road. Now, the lake bed is virtually dry, except for a creek running through the center of it. That won’t entice many people to buy property, he said.
Brown, with Sandy Creek Associates, said the value of a lakefront lot can be 50 percent or more higher than the value of a lot on a mud-flat. Brown’s company has sold about a fourth of the 60 lots around Wilson Mill Pond and a smaller adjacent lake.
Lakefront property was selling for $36,500 before the storm blew out the dam and the lake drained away, he said.
“To be able to sell a lot, you’ve got to put water in front of it,’’ Brown said. “We don’t have any choice.’’