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Dams and Reservoirs - History

The Dams and Reservoirs Safety Program of the state of South Carolina came into being with the passage of the South Carolina Dams and Reservoirs Safety Act by the General Assembly in 1977. Administration of the program was assigned by the Act to the South Carolina Land Resources Conservation Commission, a small independent state agency whose policy was set by commissioners appointed by the governor.

The failure of the dam upstream of the Toccoa Falls Bible College in Georgia right after passage of the South Carolina Act gave a great deal of impetus to getting the program started. This dam failed unexpectedly and caused the loss of many lives and a great deal of property damage. Immediately after its failure, then President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation requiring that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers perform a one-time inspection on every high hazard dam throughout the country. Since the Corps of Engineers looked to the individual states to tell them which dams were in the high hazard category, South Carolina had to greatly accelerate its inventory and classification of existing dams, so that the Corps could follow through on the inspections required by the President. Much of the work on the original inventory was accomplished by part-time temporary technicians hired to work under the few engineers that the Land Resources Commission had employed to oversee the program. The initial inventory work proceeded through 1978, 1979, and on into 1980. The original Act had required regulation of all dams that were 25 feet or more in height or that had the capability of impounding 50 acre feet of water or more (with water up to the top of the dam); additionally, dams smaller than this were included in the inventory if it was judged their failure would cause appreciable property damage or any loss of life. The original inventory numbered around 3000 dams.

The Army Corps of Engineers established a size criteria for the dams they would inspect; it included all high hazard dams that were either 25 feet or more in height, or that impounded 50 acre feet or more of water at the top of the dam. Under these criteria, approximately 100 dams received inspections by the consultant engineering firm employed by the Corps. As dams were inspected, copies of the inspection reports were sent to the governor and to the South Carolina Land Resources Conservation Commission. The responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers ended at that point, and any follow-up work to get dams upgraded, repaired, or removed was the responsibility of the State. Of the approximate 100 dams inspected, almost all were classified as unsafe by the Corps consultant, and only a handful passed inspection. Unfortunately, this created a terrible problem in deciding which dams were most critical, and of course this decision was extremely important, because resources to work with the owners were limited, as was legal assistance for enforcement.

In addition to the large number of "unsafe" dams identified by the Corps inspections, the engineers of the dam safety program identified a number of dams too small to be inspected by the Corps, which were also unsafe, and quickly discovered that the amount of time and effort involved in trying to get these very small dams upgraded did not greatly increase overall safety to the public. The South Carolina General Assembly was requested to amend the South Carolina Dams and Reservoirs Safety Act so that only those dams which were less than 25 feet high and which impounded less than 50 acre feet of water, but were a direct threat to life by their failure, would be regulated dams under the Act. The General Assembly made this change in 1980, and the number of regulated dams dropped to around 2100. (This number has gradually increased as new dams have been built, so that the inventory of regulated dams as of October, 1999, was 2278.)

The staff of the dam safety program began the task of trying to work with individual dam owners to get their unsafe dams corrected. Fortunately, detailed studies and more careful inspections removed a number of dams in the Corps reports from the unsafe list. Legal action had to be initiated against a number of dam owners in order to force them to take corrective action.

In 1984, the staff of the dam safety program started a routine reinspection program for all high hazard and significant hazard dams. High hazard dams were initially put on a 3-year inspection cycle (later changed to 2 years and subsequently to 1 year). Significant hazard dams were initially put on a 5-year inspection cycle, and this was later shortened to 3 years. It was decided that low hazard dams would not be inspected, but would be checked on a 3-year cycle to insure there was not new development that would cause the dam to be moved to a higher classification.

In 1985, the first desktop Personal Computer was acquired for the purpose of keeping the inventory of regulated dams. This acquisition made it much easier to keep track of when inspections were due, as well as to update ownership records, etc.

The South Carolina Dam Safety Program received its most serious challenges up to that time when two tropical storms, Klaus and Marco, entered the state simultaneously in early October, 1990.  Unlike Hurricane Hugo which moved quickly through the state a year earlier, these storms stalled over the state and dumped unprecedented quantities of rainfall over portions of 14 counties. Over a period of days, 17 regulated dams failed, and the staff had to check every dam in 14 counties. This was accomplished by using every staff person available, and calling in assistance from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of North Carolina. Over a period of 6 days, 977 dams were checked; 81 were found to have over topped with minor damage, 35 had to be classified unsafe and required follow-up corrective action, and 21 dams had damage that did not cause them to be classified as unsafe but required follow-up. It took several years to get these problems resolved, as some recalcitrant owners had to be taken to court to force action.

In 1994, South Carolina state government underwent major restructuring by the General Assembly. Many of the small independent agencies, including the South Carolina Land Resources Conservation Commission, were abolished, and their functions were transferred to larger agencies. The South Carolina Dam Safety Program was transferred to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and was placed in the Bureau of Water of Environmental Quality Control. In 1995, DHEC made the decision to transfer responsibility for routine inspections to the  8 Regional Offices. The function of issuing permits for new dams, or permits to alter, modify, repair or remove existing dams remained in the Bureau of Water, as did follow-up enforcement action. Changes brought about by the 1994 state government restructuring were incorporated in new Dams and Reservoirs Safety Act Regulations that received review and approval by the General Assembly in 1997.

The inventory of regulated dams, as well as the inventory of dams currently with permits, are available on the Bureau of Water computer network, and can be accessed by personnel at EQC Regional Offices level who have the responsibility for routine inspections. This inventory is available to the public through DHEC's Office of Freedom of Information.

Today, the Department inspects all high hazard structures biennially (every two years) and significant hazard structures are inspected on a 3-year cycle.

Bureau of Water . Phone: (803) 898-4300 . Fax: (803) 898-3795 . Contact Us