COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nearly a year after 2 feet of rain caused 50 dams to fail across South Carolina, regulators want lawmakers to pass new rules for the dams they are responsible for.
But some lawmakers — after giving the Department of Health and Environmental Control more money — think just doubling the number of people inspecting dams may have been enough.
DHEC is asking for three things when the Legislature returns in January. The agency wants to require the owners of the 2,500 dams it regulates to register contact information and an emergency plan yearly and to require smaller dams not normally under DHEC’s responsibility to be inspected if their failure would damage roads or utilities.
Regulators also want the 160 dams that are the biggest threat to people inspected by an independent engineer every five years and 460 dams with a significant threat every 10 years. The new rules would only affect dams in South Carolina big enough to fall under DHEC’s rules.
The agency has no idea how many small, mostly earthen dams there are in South Carolina, roughly estimating the number at over 10,000.
DHEC said South Carolina made it through Tropical Storm Hermine last month without any dam failures. Some House members at a dam safety meeting Thursday said that shows that new rules aren’t needed that could burden farmers who dammed streams for irrigation ponds or homeowner associations who wanted to create a neighborhood lake.
“I don’t want to go from perhaps not having a regulatory program that is sufficient, to going to one that is overly burdensome,” said Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat from St. Matthews who got several conservative Upstate Republicans to agree with him.
While Hermine dropped widespread areas of 6 inches of rain in central South Carolina, the floods in October dropped 18 or more inches of rain in roughly the same size area. DHEC said 50 dams failed, several of them in succession along Gills Creek in eastern Columbia, causing the biggest part of the $2.2 billion in damage from the storm.
After last year’s floods, lawmakers put more money into DHEC’s dam inspection program. In the year of the flood, it got about $260,000. The program was given $660,000 this year, and DHEC said it doubled the number of employees who inspect dams to 14.
Those inspectors have now checked the more than 600 dams that pose the biggest threat if they are breached and eventually plan to look at all the dams its regulates to assess their danger level.
Many of the dams were built on rural land years ago, only to find that populations downstream have increased dramatically. Dam owners who may have had the land passed down through generations have to make costly fixes because neighborhoods were built downstream, said Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens.
“Remember the guy who was in here last year? His repairs were going to be so expensive, they were looking at buying the houses down below the dam because it was going to be cheaper than doing the repairs,” said Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta.
Dam owners can refuse the repairs, but will then have to destroy their dams. DHEC said one dam it is working on will cost $500,000 to breach, and more than $1 million to fix.