The hole in the Windsor Lake dam isn’t hard to miss.
It formed on the side of the old earthen structure, just below a public road that runs over the dam, upstream from hundreds of homes. Behind the dam is a sparkling lake, built decades ago to enhance development.
Despite state efforts to make S.C. dams safer since a 2015 storm broke more than 50 of them, the dam at Windsor Lake and others across the state still are awaiting repairs.
Potentially thousands of S.C. dams are vulnerable to damage or failure as Hurricane Florence approaches the state. Many of those dams, built to make property more valuable for residential development, lie upstream from major roads, residential communities, schools and other public places.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Many were damaged during the historic 2015 flood, which dumped nearly two feet of rain on Columbia over a weekend, and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Now, unusually heavy rains are forecast for central and eastern South Carolina as a result of Hurricane Florence, raising fears that dams could burst again.
Since last weekend, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has examined more than 150 dams. The agency looked at those dams because it knows they are in bad shape, have not been completely repaired since the 2015 and 2016 storms, or threaten major highways used to evacuate residents from the coast, DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said.
The agency would not provide a breakdown of its assessment of the condition of each dam that it inspected in recent days.
However, two years ago, DHEC said it would ask 100 dam owners to repair battered structures that inspectors discovered after Hurricane Matthew. Those dams are among the state’s 2,400 regulated dams. But up to 20,000 additional dams in the state do not fall under any DHEC regulation, including inspections.
‘We are looking at dams’
Most S.C. dams are small, privately owned earthen structures that form ponds to provide water for farms or enhance residential development.
Some dams hold animal waste in lagoons. Other dams — including the major structures at lakes Murray and Marion — are regulated by the federal government.
DHEC’s Crosby said many state-regulated dams are stronger today than in 2015 because of increased state oversight. Others, however, have not been fixed after being damaged in the 2015 and 2016 storms.
“We are looking at dams for a variety of reasons — those that are being built, those that are being repaired, those that have consistent problems or that may not have been fixed yet,’’ Crosby told The State on Wednesday.
This week, DHEC urged dam owners to lower water levels so that heavy rains don’t cause lakes to overflow, pressuring dams and causing them to burst. The agency also has told dam owners to clear debris from spillways, chutes that release water when heavy rains threaten to make lakes too full.
Even with those measures, experts say dams that never were repaired after the 2015 flood and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew are a concern as Florence veers toward South Carolina.
“Something that is partially damaged and in poor repair would have a higher likelihood of failing’’ in the next major storm, said Gerrit Jobsis, a senior director for the environmental group American Rivers.
Jobsis said the remnants of dams that broke in 2015’s flood or during Hurricane Matthew could be a problem. Heavy rains could cause water to back up behind the damaged structures, he said. Then, they could totally give way, unleashing surges of water to threaten property downstream, he said.
“During normal flows, it might not be holding back water, but during a storm surge, it’s going to back up the water, then that will potentially cause a failure and release of water,’’ Jobsis said.
One partially broken dam that never has been repaired is an earthen structure at Pine Tree Lake, just down from the Windsor Lake dam and above Decker Boulevard. Part of the Pine Tree dam fell apart in 2015, sending a wall of water onto Decker.
At least a dozen dams that suffered substantial damage in the 2015 flood or 2016’s Hurricane Matthew have been examined by DHEC since last weekend, according to the agency’s records. The agency also has looked at the Windsor Lake dam, records show.
‘We don’t want to see a repeat of 2015’
John Cooper, who formerly helped manage the Windsor Lake dam, said he’d like to see it repaired because many people live below the structure.
The dam, which has a public road on its top, was called “unsafe and a potential danger to life and/or property,’’ according to an emergency DHEC enforcement order after the October 2015 flood. Lake levels were lowered, but the dam hasn’t been repaired because property owners have not agreed on how to pay for the work, Cooper said.
Property owners face a bill of up to $300,000 to repair the Windsor dam, and some don’t have the money, said Cooper, who moved to Athens, Ga., after the 2015 storm.
“This is difficult,’’ Cooper said. “If 50 percent of the people contribute, (the rest) just got a free ride. Nobody likes that scenario.’’
A leader of the Windsor Lake homeowner’s association declined to comment.
Still, some dams have been upgraded since the 2015 flood.
At least four dams downstream from Windsor Lake have been upgraded or rebuilt. The dams, in the Gills Creek watershed, are at Spring Lake, Lower Rockyford Lake, Upper Rockyford Lake and Cary Lake.
David Jacobs, who heads the property owners group at Lower Rockyford Lake, said he and his neighbors spent $1.7 million to replace that lake’s former earthen dam with a more modern structure. The aging Lower Rockyford dam fell apart during the 2015 flood, sending a burst of water into a neighbor’s yard and into already swollen Forest Lake.
“I’m feeling confident our rebuilt dam will withstand whatever is thrown at us,’’ Jacobs said.
Nonetheless, Jacobs said his association has taken precautions to prepare for Hurricane Florence by lowering lake levels.Water levels also are being lowered at Upper Rockyford Lake, a sister reservoir, he said.
Fran Varacalli, the director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, said other lakes in the area also are being lowered.
“We don’t want to see a repeat of 2015,’’ shesaid.
‘We need ... state leaders’
Dam safety has been an issue since the 2015 flood exposed South Carolina as having one of the nation’s worst dam oversight programs.
Since then, DHEC has received a substantial budget increase for its dam-safety program. That program’s budget now tops $1 million, paying for 14 staffers. The program had only two full-time inspectors before 2015’s flood.
The agency also has stepped up its dam inspections, taking enforcement actions and urging dam owners to spend more time maintaining their dams.
But the agency failed in its attempts to toughen the state’s weak dam-safety law. State legislators — worried about a backlash from farmers, opposed to more regulation — did not pass the package of tougher dam regulations.
Jobsis of American Rivers said that needs to change.
“It’s a big challenge, but we need some level of commitment by our state leaders,’’ he said.