At an additional cost of US$1.8 million per year, it is difficult to envision a rationale for South Carolina to not improve its dam safety program in the wake of last fall's torrential rains that caused nearly three dozen dams to fail, according to an editorial in the Greenville News.
A bill presented by South Carolina Speaker of the House Jay Lucas would nearly quadruple the budget for the program that's administered by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, according to a report by The State newspaper. The department's current budget is about $470,000, and it is woefully inadequate.
Unfortunately, South Carolina got irrefutable proof of just how inadequate the program now is. When October's 1,000-year rainfall event dumped more than 20 inches of water on parts of the state, 32 dams failed causing significant property damage and putting lives at risk.
An analysis of the state's dam safety program revealed that the state's network of 2,400 regulated dams is not inspected frequently enough and the staff that does the work is far too small. In addition, too many dams in the state are not being inspected at all.
In a detailed report in November, Greenville News investigative reporter Rick Brundrett revealed that DHEC has only 6.75 employee positions dedicated to inspecting all of the state's regulated dams. Unbelievably, that's an improvement from 2005 when only 1.5 full-time positions were in the program. At times, the program's budget has been as low was $200,000.
The national model calls for dam inspections every year for those structures that pose the greatest risk to life and property if they fail; every two years for the next class of dams, and every five years for the least risky dams. Brundrett's analysis found that at least a dozen dams that were under emergency order for repairs after the fall's floods had not been inspected in the past five years or more.
Such a lag should not be allowed to continue.
The dangers of a breached dam are far too great for South Carolina not to take this seriously. Although this state has a history of requiring agencies to operate on bare-bones budgets and kicking problems down the road, the need to fix this funding disparity should be obvious.
As DHEC director Catherine Heigel said, "We do have a role at the end of the day to keep people safe."
To their credit, lawmakers appear to readily see that need, as well.
Lucas' bill would expand the office by 13 staff members, allowing them to properly inspect and monitor the state's regulated dams and increase the number of dams that the agency inspects.
It is hard to imagine that this legislation would not get the support it deserves. The total cost to recover from the October deluge exceeds $1 billion. Certainly only a fraction of that would have been prevented had the dams been inspected more routinely, but it seems worth the relatively small cost to make the dams safer.
Once Lucas' bill is passed, the Legislature and the governor need to follow through with funding.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Nikki Haley acknowledged after the flood that there's a funding gap in the agency and said that there would likely be a more money for the program in the executive budget. That needs to happen.
The reality is, South Carolina gets heavy rains throughout the year. The 1,000-year rain might have been a freak occurrence, but it doesn't mean the state shouldn't be prepared for the next significant rainfall. Ensuring the state's dams are properly inspected, and that more of them are inspected, is simply common sense.
This should be an easy vote and it should happen very early in the upcoming legislative session.
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