Gov. Henry McMaster has generally gotten high marks for his decisions regarding limited coastal evacuation in advance of Hurricane Irma. It was a delicate task, given the shifting projections of where the storm might hit.

And credit the governor for a decision aimed at sparing the Midlands with another flooding catastrophe, when he ordered all dam owners statewide to lower water levels.

Recall the devastation that occurred in October 2015 when 51 of state's roughly 2,300 private dams failed as 16 inches of rain fell over just six hours, flooding homes, washing out roads and spurring state officials to take corrective actions.

Within a few weeks, the state issued emergency orders to replace or repair 76 dams classified as a "high hazard," meaning they could cost lives or cause severe damage to infrastructure. More than 180 other dams were flagged for non-emergency repairs.

But because the issue was a sleeping giant before the 2015 deluge, and many of the dam owners were in no position to pay for costly repairs, only a few of the high-hazard dams had been repaired by the time Hurricane Matthew struck the following October, causing about 25 more dam failures, mostly in the Pee Dee region.

And it could happen again.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control has been working to improve private dam safety in the wake of the initial deluge. In some cases the agency has helped private owners secure Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to help pay for repairs.

But more than 100 at-risk dams remain to be repaired, rebuilt or removed.

And while the Legislature has provided more funding to DHEC's dam safety program, there is more for lawmakers to do. Legislation that would require property owners to have surety bonds to cover emergency repairs has yet to be approved, mainly because dam owners object to the costs of repairs to protect downstream properties.

Repairing or replacing the mostly earthen structures that turned streams into recreational lakes can cost anywhere from less than $100,000 to more than $1.5 million, and many of the property owners were unaware they even owned dams or were responsible for their upkeep.

A new round of private dam inspections started in February and is "way ahead of schedule," according to DHEC's head of environmental affairs, Myra Reece. So far, the agency has issued at least 36 permits to repair dams. A few dams have been removed altogether, one with the help of the nonprofit American Rivers.

DHEC's water bureau chief, Mark Hollis, said the agency has new tools, including a geographic information system that enables engineers in field offices to better monitor dams and respond to problems faster.

In trouble spots such as the Pee Dee region and the Gills Creek watershed near Columbia, where about 20 dams failed or were flagged for emergency repairs, at least two of the larger earthen dams have been replaced by concrete structures and work is underway on a third.

But problems still exist, mainly on the property owners' end. Most of the dams in question are more than 50 years old and are typically owned by individuals or homeowners' associations. Others were built by developers to create waterfront properties and never deeded over to landowners. When the 2015 emergency repair orders were issued, about 20 property owners simply did not respond.

Additionally, lagging dam repairs have held up the replacement of at least a dozen roads that were washed out, with the Department of Transportation refusing to take action until the dams are repaired.

In the coming legislative session, lawmakers will need to find a way to speed up repairs — even if it means shifting the burden to taxpayers at large, creating special tax districts or enlisting nonprofits to get the job done.

There were no reports of dam breaches during Irma, but the storm was another reminder of the work that still needs to be done to forestall another catastrophe.

This editorial is from The Post and Courier of Charleston via The Associated Press.


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