Politics & Government

General wanted a higher lake to beautify Ft. Jackson. Then, a dam broke.

The Semmes Dam burst in 2015. Today, we still don’t know why

In October, 2015, the Semmes Lake Dam near Fort Jackson burst, causing flooding in areas around the base and in parts of Columbia, SC. The Army has been reluctant in releasing information about how the dam failed.
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In October, 2015, the Semmes Lake Dam near Fort Jackson burst, causing flooding in areas around the base and in parts of Columbia, SC. The Army has been reluctant in releasing information about how the dam failed.

A former Fort Jackson commander has admitted in federal court that he asked his staff to raise lake levels near an earthen dam that later broke and, according to neighboring homeowners, flooded millions of dollars worth of property during a historic rainstorm four years ago.

Retired Brig. Gen. James Schwitters’ efforts to beautify the lake by keeping water levels high were among the reasons the Semmes Lake dam failed in the 2015 deluge, say attorneys who are suing the federal government on behalf of flooded property owners.

The higher lake levels put pressure on the dam, contributing to the failure of the nearly 1,000-foot long structure the weekend of Oct. 3, 2015, court records show.

Schwitters, base commander from July 2005 to July 2008, for the first time confirms in a sworn statement allegations by a base employee, who said in a deposition last year that the Fort Jackson commander wanted to keep lake levels high near his home on the training base.

In the Aug. 8, 2018, statement obtained by The State, Schwitters said he sought to increase water levels so Semmes Lake would look pleasant. Grass and weeds had begun to stick out of the water, “making the lake unattractive for recreational use by graduating soldiers and their visiting families,’’ his statement said.

To keep lake levels high, base workers added a type of concrete wall, or curb, on the dam to hold water back, records show.

But the extra concrete, still in place when the 2015 storm hit, reduced the dam’s ability to release water through a spillway as the flood raged four years ago, pressuring the more than 80-year-old structure before it crumbled, court documents show. Spillways allow water to get through dams when lakes become swollen by heavy rain.

“To me, it’s a pretty simple case,’’ Columbia lawyer Pete Strom said in court documents. “The general at Fort Jackson had his people install a 12-inch curb in the emergency spillway that changed all the engineering of the dam.’’

Strom said this “is one of the causes of this flooding,’’ court records show.

Schwitters, who is retired and still living in Richland County, declined comment when reached Wednesday.

The 2015 storm was among the worst anyone can remember in Columbia. Multiple dams, including the one at Semmes Lake, fell apart in the Gills Creek watershed, as well as other parts of the area. Flooding was so significant that some of the city’s most busy streets were covered in water, including a section of lower Devine Street below Semmes Lake and Fort Jackson. In addition to property damage, two people died in the lower Devine Street area in that morning’s flooding.

Rainfall gauges at Fort Jackson showed that 13.4 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period from Oct. 3 to 4. In addition to Semmes Lake, a dike at Lower Legion Lake on Fort Jackson also failed.

In May 2016, property owners at King’s Grant, a gated community adjacent to the base, sued the government, claiming that the failure of the Semmes Lake dam flooded their property. They claim the federal government did not properly maintain the dam.

A federal judge dismissed the case last fall, saying the alleged government negligence in the Fort Jackson case did not “form a proper basis for a lawsuit.’’ But King’s Grant homeowners have appealed the decision and will soon be submitting written arguments to a federal appeals court.

According to court documents, Schwitters said the lake at one time had higher levels; he just wanted them returned to their previous levels. The base did some construction work in what it says was an effort to improve the dam while he was commander.

“I suggested the lake be raised to its former level so that it would be attractive for recreational use,’’ Schwitters’ statement said. “As a result of my suggestion, the lake was raised..’’

Schwitters did not say in his statement if he thinks the higher lake levels contributed to the dam’s failure. The Army has said Fort Jackson acted properly in maintaining the dam.

Court records and federal reports show that poor maintenance might have contributed to the dam’s failure. Inspection records previously obtained by The State showed the dam was in poor shape before the storm, needing repairs. The fort was told about the problems two years before the storm, but the repairs were never made, The State reported.

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