Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Now that we realize the risks of earthen dams, what will we do about it?

THEY DAMMED up the creeks running through eastern Richland County in the first half of the last century, to form ponds and lakes and create desirable waterfront property. For decades, we lived blissfully on and around and downstream of the earthen dams, oblivious to the potential any one of them held to do torrential damage to our homes and businesses, and lives.

And this month they did. The dam breaches apparently turned dangerous situations into deadly ones in Columbia, sending unfathomable amounts of water gushing into already flooded city streets, causing what might have been the worst destruction in the state and carrying unsuspecting motorists to watery deaths.

The breaches undermined earthen dams that were privately built and privately owned and that state officials have been stretched too thin to regulate properly.

The way things ought to work is that state officials who know what they’re looking for inspect dams regularly and notify the owners of problems spotted and improvements needed; if the improvements aren’t made, fines would be levied and eventually the lakes or ponds ordered drained.

But like most everything else in state government, we try to monitor even high-risk dams on the cheap. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials says South Carolina spends just $260,000 a year on dam safety, or $104 per dam; the national average is $611. Each dam safety staff member is responsible for 380 of the 2,499 state-regulated dams, and as The State’s Sammy Fretwell reports, DHEC tries to cover the gap by sending in inspectors who aren’t experts — in at least one case, a restaurant inspector.

The Army Corps of Engineers says Beaver Dam near Wildewood — the one that only heroic efforts stopped from breaching three days after the deluge — should be inspected every three years, but it was last inspected in 2000. The Los Angeles Times reported that DHEC performed only 63 percent of its scheduled inspections last year on the state’s 180 high-hazard dams.

Even when the monitoring was done, and problems were found, DHEC did not act aggressively enough: 11 of the 15 regulated dams that failed in Richland County showed repeated deficiencies that DHEC sought, and apparently failed, to make the owners correct.

Of course Beaver Dam held, despite the absence of routine monitoring.

Maybe all of those other dams would have failed even if they had been in perfect repair.

And although it’s just as likely that we’ll have another 1,000-year flood next year as it was that we would have one this month (it’s a quirky thing about statistical probabilities; you don’t want me to explain it), and although climate change means those probabilities might need to be updated, there’s still a 99.9 percent chance that we will not have another flood like this in any given year.

So the take-away from the floods is not that we need to build dams to the 1,000-year-flood standard, any more than we need to build our homes and businesses to that standard, or barricade ourselves inside our high-land homes out of fear that another wall of water will sweep over us tomorrow.

The take-away should be a recognition of the destructive and disruptive power of dam failures.

For that matter, the take-away from the flood in general should be a new understanding of the destructive and disruptive power of bridge collapses and pavement that disintegrates under cars and water main breaks that leave the capital city without safe drinking water for 10 days.

We’ve been talking almost casually about crumbling roads and deteriorating bridges, without actually stopping to think about how much losing them can disrupt our lives. After we repair hundreds of flooded-out roads and bridges, we need to make sure this new understanding informs our debates about getting unflooded roads into good working order.

We’ve been berating the gross irresponsibility of the Columbia City Council for diverting money from its ancient water and sewer system because … well, because that’s irresponsible … without really comprehending what it’s like for a whole community to have to boil water and still worry about every ounce of unboiled water we come into contact with. We ought to finally recognize how essential it is to get the water lines — and the sewer lines — in good repair.

It is highly unlikely that we will ever again have a flood that takes out 17 dams in a single community, and 36 across the state. But we do have those 36 breached dams, and we have to decide what standards to require for repairing them — and for building new ones.

Although a 1,000-year standard is not a reasonable requirement, we need a higher standard than was in place in the early 20th century. Repairing dams to that higher standard will be expensive. And it will be difficult to make the case that taxpayers should help pay for structures whose purpose is to serve the lake-dwellers — particularly since they have an easy, if not attractive, alternative to rebuilding the dams: drain the lakes.

We also need a higher standard from our government, for monitoring and enforcement. It was encouraging to see DHEC act late this week to order 63 dam owners to lower water levels or drain lakes. It will be more encouraging if this new toughness lasts after the media spotlight fades.

As long as we give property owners or homeowners associations carte blanche to decide how much risk to impose on the people who live downstream, everyone downstream will be in danger.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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