How a Lack of Regulation Turned into a Big Dam Problem, 0916 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, September 2016, #44

AuthorSean A. O’Connor and Joseph Schillizzi, J.

How a Lack of Regulation Turned into a Big Dam Problem

No. Vol. 28 Issue 2 Pg. 44

South Carolina BAR Journal

September, 2016

Sean A. O’Connor and Joseph Schillizzi, J.

A thousand year storm

On October 4, 2015, Hurricane Joaquin spawned a catastrophic storm over South Carolina.[1] The image of the weather map was almost beyond belief. It appeared as if the storm had specifically selected our state for devastation.[2] The storm brought with it historic levels of rainfall and flooding[3] and was referred to by the media and government as a “thousand year storm,” “unprecedented” and “without warning.”[4]

South Carolina’s infrastructure was simply not ready for it. Numerous roadways were flooded, bridges were washed out, and homes were damaged or swept away. Over 20,000 people were left, at least temporarily, without a home or the ability to reach home.[5] Tragically, 19 people died, most while trying to escape a flooded vehicle.[6]

In Lexington County alone, the estimated cost to repair only the roads is expected to top $7 million.[7] Much of the damage resulted from dams bursting under the unprecedented level of rain.[8] The question many in the state were left with was, “Why did all these dams break, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?”

Little oversight

South Carolina has some 2,439 dams that are regulated by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).[9] However, under state law the only dams regulated are those that are 25 or more feet high, impound more than 50 acre-feet of water, or would cause loss of human life if breached.[10] Dams that do not fall within these regulatory parameters have virtually no oversight, and are solely operated and inspected, if at all, by the organizations or individuals that control them.

Besides the approximately 2,400 dams that are subject to DHEC regulations, South Carolina has somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 dams that are not.[11] It is estimated that rainfall from Hurricane Joaquin caused 48 state-regulated dams to burst.[12] It is unknown how many unregulated dams failed as a result of the October 2015 storm, but what is known is that some of the failures ended up causing a great deal of damage.

In northeast Richland County, the unregulated Pine Tree Dam on the lake of the same name was managed on an ad hoc basis by local property owners after the homeowners’ association (HOA) that had controlled the dam became insolvent and ceased operating.[13] The dam required manual operation of flood gates to release water pressure when the lake level reached a certain height, and it appears no one in the group of local concerned owners attempting to operate it had experience or training as to how to properly run a dam.[14] It is unsurprising, then, that the homeowners didn’t know what steps to take when the historic rainfall impacted the structure.

The combination of water overtopping the Pine Tree Dam and its eventual failure led to extensive flooding of the nearby heavily traveled Decker Boulevard and homes in the area.[15] Several people had to be rescued from stranded cars.[16] A nearby dam on Cary Lake, downstream from Pine Tree, also burst later the same day.[17] Although it is unknown whether the failure of the Pine Tree Dam caused the breach at Cary Lake, it is not unreasonable to assume that it likely affected water levels at Cary Lake, and illustrates how small, poorly maintained, private dams upstream can have a cascading damaging effect downstream.

State officials have acknowledged that at least four other unregulated dams burst in the Columbia area during the storm.[18] In Lexington County, at least 21 dams were found to have been breached that were not identified by state officials as being regulated by the state.[19] This disparity in figures reflects that the state government does not have a firm grasp on the numbers of unregulated dams that may have contributed to the extensive damage caused by the October 2015 flooding.

Insufficient funding

For years, DHEC’s budget to regulate dams in South Carolina has been one of the lowest in the nation, generally less than $200,000 per year, or less than 83 dollars per regulated dam.[20] DHEC claims that figure is misleading because it accounts for only the salary of the employee tasked with overseeing dam regulation, and that there are a number of other inspectors and investigators whose salaries are not included in that figure (and who, presumably, inspect more than just dams).[21] In fiscal year 2016, DHEC’s budget for d am regulation and safety (including inspection, permitting and compliance enforcement) is roughly $470,000, including a FEMA grant.[22] The budget for fiscal year 2017, which began July 1, 2016, is $947,000, and a grant application was submitted to FEMA for an additional $220,000.[23]

Regardless, these figures still only represent the amounts our state is willing to spend to inspect the 2,400 regulated dams. For the ten to twenty thousand dams that do not meet the height or water impoundment thresholds, DHEC’s only authority over them is the catch-all provision that allows for regulation of smaller dams that may cause loss of life or have a high “hazard potential.”[24] Of course, DHEC has no way to evaluate the hazard potential for many of these thousands of unregulated dams, especially in rural areas, because the lack of a permitting requirement means that the state has no records of any of these dams or where they might be located.[25]

Efforts were undertaken during the 2016 legislative session to provide for more DHEC oversight of these smaller but still potentially hazardous structures, which would at least require owners to register such dams. Most notable was H. 4565, the Dams and Reservoirs Safety Act, introduced by House Speaker Jay Lucas (R-Darlington), which died in committee at the end of the 2016 legislative session.[26] However, unless the legislature also provides DHEC the increase in funds it desperately needs to cover the cost of inspecting thousands of additional dams per year, legislation authorizing additional oversight of dams would seem unlikely to have much practical effect. Reaching...

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