South Carolina environmental regulators say they want the ability to oversee more small dams that could still cause infrastructure damage if they fail. But some legislators are uncomfortable with the expensive upgrades and repairs that would be needed on those private dams, which often hold back ponds less than 50 acres in size.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) outlined its preferred regulations during a hearing with an ad hoc House committee Thursday. The Dam Safety Ad Hoc Committee was created to review possible changes to South Carolina’s dam regulations or laws after three dozen dams failed statewide in record October rainfall, causing millions of dollars in damage particularly across the eastern areas of Columbia.
DHEC legislative liaison David Wilson said his agency is seeking a new law that would require the owners of regulated dams to re-register their dams each year, so the owner’s contact information would be more readily available to DHEC. He sad it would also require the owner or operator keep better tabs on the structure.
The state’s environmental agency is also seeking the ability to regulate more small dams it believes could cause property damage downstream should they fail. Right now, the agency lacks the authority to inspect or order repairs on dams less than 25 feet high or impound a pond of fewer than 50 acres unless that dam’s failure could cause a loss of life. Wilson said DHEC is requesting that dams whose failure would cause downstream infrastructure damage also be reclassified as “high hazard,” which would put them under the agency’s oversight.
“That dam also needs to be included,” he told legislators.
But key committee members, including the House’s agriculture chairman State Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, had concerns owners of small dams would be regulated based on downstream neighbors they could not control. “The guy that owns a dam built 50 years ago, built it to specifications, now someone has come in and built underneath him… and now his dam could be reclassified as ‘high risk’ through no fault of his own,” he told Wilson. “He’s going to have to spend to make sure it doesn’t cause any problems to these folks down below him.”
Other lawmakers like State Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Woodruff, questioned if some property owners would simply abandon their dams rather than retrofit them to meet new regulations. Chumley said he’s concerned about future flooding if that happens, since many of those manmade ponds retain water during storms.
But others said last October’s flooding proves that tougher restrictions are needed. “I think it is imperative that this state have some governance,” State Rep. Greg Duckworth, R-N. Myrtle Beach, said. “I think these (flooding) concerns… will have to take precedence over some of those other concerns. Because we just can’t continue to operate in the way we have.”
State Rep. Russell Ott, D- St. Matthews, said he’s not sure the new regulations are even needed. He believes aging, flawed dams failed last October because DHEC at the time lacked the funding to do proper inspections. “I still can’t get rid of the feeling that, if the General Assembly would have done the responsible thing over the course of the years, perhaps some of the problems that we encountered… would not have taken place.”
Wilson said DHEC has hired eight people in its dam safety division over the past year. The hiring filled several vacant positions and new ones created with more than $600,000 in new funding set aside by the legislature.
No votes were taken on the proposals Thursday. Legislators plan several more meetings before coming up with final recommendations for the full House to take up next year.