I-TEAM: Investigating dam safety across the river region

Published: Jul. 20, 2021 at 7:38 PM EDT
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AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - While the dam at the center of Tuesday’s bridge closure in Aiken County didn’t fail, other dams in our area and in South Carolina have in the past.

Ridge-Spring Monetta has gotten some of the most rain in our area in the past couple of days.

The issue of dam safety first came under the microscope after the thousand year flood in 2015. Today the I-Team combed through a statewide report to see what’s since changed.

This “State of the Dams” DHEC report is the latest effort to classify and assess dam safety across the Palmetto State.

It found “Due to exemptions specified in the dams and reservoirs safety act…the majority of dams in the state (roughly estimated to be over 20,000) are not regulated.” Of the 20,000, 87 percent are privately owned by individual property owners and too small to meet the threshold for state oversight.

Only 2,300 dams are subject to state regulations. 540 of those or 23 percent are at a high risk of flooding. And another 286 or 12 percent present a significant flooding risk. And flood they did in 2015 with the thousand year flood. And again in 2016 from Hurricane Matthew and again in 2018 from Hurricane Florence.

The I-Team found our area is home to many dams. Some in red at a high risk of flooding but many in blue pose a low risk.

After the 2015 flood, DHEC ruled four dams in Aiken County had failed. The I-Team found three years later some of those put under emergency orders were still not repaired.

In total DHEC says more than $12 million is being funneled into dam oversight, safety and restoration programs. DHEC found five major issues with the future of dam safety.

The biggest issue the I-Team found DHEC can’t even figure out who owns many small dams “One of the most challenging tasks faced by the dam safety program is determining who owns and is responsible for the upkeep of a dam. Over time, as property is sold (and resold), parcel lines are drawn through the middle of dams, along the crest line” leaving “Titles, plats, deeds and other records have to be traced many decades back.”

Another issue most dams are old with the majority constructed from 1900 to 1979.

There is also the cost to fix a private dam as a major hurdle. And public roads that are impacted over or near dams that need repairs. If an owner can’t be decided it’s up to the courts to determine who the responsible party is. A long and tedious process when you’re talking, nearly 18,000 dams are privately owned.

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