Devastating Flooding in South Carolina Sparks Questions on Dam Inspections

Record rain seems to have produced record misery in South Carolina.  Some 20 inches of rain has fallen. And that has caused many dams to breach.  At last count, at least 18 dams have failed.

“We’re really not surprised at some of the things that are happening when you don’t have a fully robust state regulation program and South Carolina, unfortunately has not put the time, resources or manpower into their state dam safety program,” says Lori Spragens, Association of Dam Safety Officials. ”

The  associations says South Carolina has one the nation’s weakest  programs in terms of funding, staff and resulting inspections of the states nearly 2,500 dams.  First, she says there are a handful of inspectors. “The three or four people assigned to dam safety are fantastic workers and engineers.  But there’s not enough of them,” said Spragens.  Second, she says the inspections the employees can perform are not being done often enough, especially on the state’s 180 dams labeled as “high hazard.”

“So they’re supposed to be inspecting high hazard dams about every two years and they’re pretty behind on that schedule,” she told us.

Spragens acknowledges the huge amount of rain would have caused problems in many states.  But she also said “in this day and age, dams at this point should be upgraded so they can pass pretty significant events.”

She compared South Carolina to the state of Colorado, saying several years ago a major flooding event took place in Colorado.  But she says few dams were breached there because the state of Colorado had been spending millions to upgrade its inspections and repairs program.

In Georgia, an infrastructure report card in 2014 rated dam safety at D minus. Another issue in Georgia and South Carolina is that the majority of dams are earthen dams often on private property.  So if the private owner doesn’t make repairs or doesn’t know enough to make repairs, Spragens says that makes an active state inspection program even more important.

Spragens believes there are lessons for other states.  “The states themselves, these state lawmakers really need to see what’s going on in South Carolina and remember they’ve got to fund these dam safety regulation programs,” she said.

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