SC dam owners lack funding to help with repairs; nearly half of regulated dams rated ‘poor’

News13 Investigates

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Back to back hurricanes in 2015 and 2016 led to historic flooding in South Carolina and dozens of dams failing.

Since, the state has worked to bolster its dam management program. A division of DHEC oversees the program, which handles around 2,300 state-regulated dams in the Palmetto State.

One of those is on Harry King’s quiet pond just outside Hartsville.

“I bought this property back in the early ’80s and I’ve been living on the pond since 1990,” King said.

He loves the peace and quiet, but the dam, he says, can be a headache.

“Different regulations,” he said. “To start with there were none and now it’s like they control everything you do… Have to cut all the trees off the dam. Stumps out. Hire engineers to look at the dam.”

He says he’s spent thousands of dollars.

“There’s no funding, no help, it all comes out of your pocket,” he said.

DHEC manages inspections and compliance for the state regulated dams.

“The events starting in 2015 were an incredible surprise to all of us who work in dam safety,” Director of DHEC’s division of Dam Safety and Stormwater Permitting Jill Stewart told News13 during a virtual interview. “We had over 50 regulated dams that we know of that breached…And that led us to really kind of begin a reinvigoration of our program.”

That reinvigoration included investments into everything from mapping, to inspecting, and educating dam owners. Over 12 million dollars in additional funding has been allocated to the program.

Hurricane Joaquin indirectly caused historic rainfall in South Carolina in 2015. Between that rain event and Hurricane Matthew the next year, 70 regulated dams failed statewide.

“One of the best things we did after that series of events was place engineers in six of our regional offices in the state,” Stewart said. “Not only does it put them close to the dams that they inspect and come to know…A lot of what they do is education.”

DHEC released a report in August 2020 that details progress made by the program and challenges it still faces. Included in the report is data on the regulated dams in South Carolina.

The report says over 1,000 regulated dams have been rated as being in poor condition. Poor means:

A dam safety deficiency is recognized for loading conditions, which may realistically occur.
Remedial action is necessary. A POOR condition is used when uncertainties exist as to critical analysis parameters, which identify a potential dam safety deficiency. Further investigations and studies are necessary.

“That is a high number,” Stewart said. “And it ties back to reflecting the age of the dams… It means we may have to start pressing those owners a little harder to speed up the repairs.”

The same report reveals over half of regulated dams in the state were built before 1970. A major hurdle is the lack of funding for private dam owners that Harry King deals with.

“His questions and concerns about funding is one we hear from so many owners in the state,” Stewart said. “And right now in South Carolina there is not a set funding stream they can tap into.”

Some private dam owners can get a small tax credit, but repair costs fall on their sholders.

“Serious money,” King said. “And labor. My labor…There needs to be some changes.”

“I hope you will see if you come back in five years after us working more intently with dam owners is that we’ve been able to move some of those poors into fair condition through routine inspections,” Stewart said.

As South Carolina becomes more urbanized, more dams have to be reclassified to ‘high hazard.’ That means if they were to fail it would likely cause loss of life or serious property damage.

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