‘Bound to Fail’

Dawson’s Dam Substandard, Neighboring Dam at Risk

BLYTHEWOOD – Residents of the Dawson’s Creek community gathered at Doko Manor last week, seeking answers to what caused a 92-year-old dam to breach on the night of Aug. 6, sending a 6-acre pond washing out onto Highway 21. Carol Peeples and 10 of her neighbors in the community sat down with representative of the Town of Blythewood, as well as Richland County Councilman Torrey Rush (District 7), Stacey Culbreath, assistant engineer with the Richland County Department of Public Works, and Brice McCoy, with the Army Corps of Engineers Aug. 28 to rehash the chain of events leading up to the disaster. James Cooper, a general contractor with Cutting Edge Design and Contracting, was also on hand as a consultant brought in by Peeples to inspect the remains of the dam.

Peeples has asserted from the moment the dam failed that an infestation of beavers prevented the drainage system from dispersing water runoff from a pond at Blythewood High School, just to the north of Dawson’s Creek. Removing the beavers, she said, is Richland County’s responsibility, one it has failed to carry out. While Cooper said he agreed with the assessment that poor drainage triggered the Aug. 6 breach, he said such an event was inevitable.

“It was bound to fail,” Cooper said. “Quite frankly, I don’t understand how this thing hasn’t failed already. Beavers or no beavers. This dam was built sub-standardly.”

Cooper said the dam, which was built in 1929, was constructed primarily of sand and is saturated with water.

“I have no clue why they used the materials they did,” Cooper said. “It was set up for a perfect event.”

Cooper estimated the cost for filling in the breach at $25,000, but even then, the likelihood of another breach was “100 percent,” he said.

McCoy said the entire dam area was built on a wetland, presenting challenges to proper drainage.

“It’s never going to drain out,” McCoy said. “The dam doesn’t have any emergency spillways. It’s not designed according to current standards. If you’re going to fix it, it will definitely behoove you to fix it right, or there’s going to be another event that’s going to blow this thing out.”

The cost to totally rebuild the dam, or to refit the dam to reduce the likelihood of another breach, would be many times higher, although Cooper was unprepared to put even a general dollar figure on such an undertaking.

To make matters worse, Cooper said the dam holding back the smaller pond that sits above the now empty Dawson’s Creek pond bed is now teetering on collapse.

“Because the bigger pond is no longer there, it may breach,” Cooper said. “If it’s spilling over now, it’s probably eroding and eventually it will breach. There’s no hydraulic pressure holding it back.”

In a matter of 30 minutes, Cooper said, Highway 21 could flood again as water from the smaller pond could breach its dam, flow into the empty Dawson’s Creek pond basin and out over the existing breach.

“If we don’t take care of the beaver problem, Highway 21 will one day wash (away),” David Shanes, a Dawson’s Creek resident said. “I don’t know how Highway 21 didn’t wash out (during the Aug. 6 breach).”

The beaver problem is one Peeples said she has been trying to get Richland County to address for years. Culbreath said he would take Peeples’ concerns back to his department.

“If we have the easement (on the drainage creek below the dam), we will come out and remove the beavers,” Culbreath said.

“You have an easement, because I gave it to you,” Peeples said.

But Cooper warned that the only way to thwart the beavers would be to pipe the drainage creek.

“You’re never going to be able to keep up with these beavers,” Cooper said. “They’ll just keep coming back. It’s a perfect spot for them. But if you were to pipe it, you eliminate their desire to dam it up. There’ll be nothing for them to dam up.”

Peeples has also expressed concerns that a work crew spotted in the area just weeks before the breach may have contributed to the disaster. While both the Department of Transportation and Richland County have denied having any crews in the area at that time, Cooper said it was unlikely any such activity could have contributed to the breach. The problem, he said, was beavers and a 25-year rain event.

Facing a minimum price tag of $25,000 for repairing the dam, Peeples and other homeowners who live around the empty pond are looking to Richland County to help them foot the bill. Peeples is expecting to hear back from Culbreath and the County this week before determining what steps to take next.