A LOT OF OUR neighbors whose dams breached during the floods of 2015 are still living with muddy, overgrown lake beds and will continue to do so indefinitely, because they can’t afford to rebuild the dams. Although that’s probably much better for our environment, and much safer for residents downstream, it’s a tough pill to swallow for homeowners who paid premium prices for what was at the time lakefront property with a stunning view.
But on this second anniversary of the floods, we are getting ever closer to the reconstruction of one major dam — a dam whose breach was so calamitous that it is alleged to have caused at least one death and $20 million in damage to the upscale homes in the downstream King’s Grant neighborhood.
Of course, cost is no issue there: Since Semmes Lake is owned by the Army, it will be paid for by all of us — including those of us whose homes were destroyed as its flood waters rolled over them.
The environmental review of the project still has to run its course before construction can begin, but this summer the Army and the Army Corps of Engineers issued a draft environmental impact statement finding that rebuilding the lake would have “no significant impact.” Another draft statement says that after reviewing alternatives, they had concluded that there is “no practicable alternative to the proposed action.”
No practical alternatives. Not even allowing the creek that feeds it to revert to a natural stream to flow through the Army property, as will happen through so many privately owned properties.
In December, when Fort Jackson officials announced plans to rebuild the Semmes Lake Dam instead of leaving it breached, with water flowing through its natural course, they said a restored lake would help retain storm water. Letting the lake go natural, they said, could create a mosquito breeding ground. Those may be legitimate considerations, but it’s hard not to think the primary motivation is two other reasons given: They want their recreational lake, and they want to use it to water their golf course.
We don’t know how much it will cost to restore Fort Jackson’s recreational lake, but we know that new dams don’t come cheap. We also know that the rebuilding effort comes as military brass complain that they don’t have enough money for the actual mission of the military: defending our nation.
More importantly, we don’t know how much the Army’s neglect contributed to the breach that devastated so much of Columbia. And what we do know is deeply disturbing. It was more than a year after the flood before The State’s Sammy Fretwell finally got a look at the 2013 inspection about which he previously had seen only email references. As Mr. Fretwell reported, the 84-page inspection report “gave bad grades to virtually every part of the dam that was examined,” pointing to problems with “the top of the dam, its side slopes and its spillway.”
I’m sure the Army’s inspection was more thorough than the ones produced by DHEC’s short-staffed dam-safety program. But the picture the inspection painted was of a dam in far worse shape than anything we saw in the state inspection reports — all of which are public, by the way — of the 40 privately owned dams that failed in the Midlands.
Imagine for a moment that any of those reports had been so damning. Wouldn’t we be calling for the heads of the public officials who allowed the problems to be ignored?
Large sections of the Army’s dam inspection report were redacted. Moreover, two years after the floods, the Army still won’t answer Mr. Fretwell’s questions about what if any actions it took between 2013 and the 2015 floods to address the concerns raised by the inspection. The Army needs to answer those questions, the most significant of which are these: Did it correct the problems cited in the 2013 report? If not, why not?
I fully understand why we aren’t getting those answers: There are lawsuits, and the Army is responding the way just about any lawyer will advise his clients when facing a lawsuit: by clamming up.
But the Army isn’t just any defendant. It’s the government. And as I have written repeatedly about state and local agencies, the sort of behavior we have come to expect from private entities simply is not acceptable for government. Government is supposed to look out for the interests of the public, not what it perceives as its own interest.
Government is supposed to be honest about what it did wrong and take reasonable steps to right those wrongs.
If the Army took action before the floods to shore up the Semmes Lake dam, it should say so, and it should tell us what that entailed. If it did not, it should admit that and explain why not.
Fort Jackson is and has been a wonderful neighbor to Columbia, but no neighbor is perfect. An imperfection doesn’t need to ruin a good relationship. But it needs to be acknowledged. And it needs to be corrected.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.