Storms Are One Thing, Floods Are Another

Oct. 14, 2015

Floods First
We are all vulnerable to nature’s whims, and the tragedies in South Carolina are another stressful reminder of this. I feel for the region that is now grieving 17 deaths along with frightful property losses. The Weather Channel has compiled a number of before and after images here. And the Los Angeles Times article “South Carolina residents rush to higher ground as 14 dams fail,” provides some insight into what has happened:

Beginning in the early 1900s, many small earthen dams were built, mainly by landowners along the network to create recreational lakes. Through the decades, neighborhoods have been developed around the scenic lakes, creating storm water runoff problems, according to the Gills Creek Watershed Assn.

Throughout much of the forested lands of South Carolina, there are more than 2,400 state-regulated dams, most of which are earthen dams on private property. Of those, 180 are deemed high-hazard potential, said Mark Ogden, project manager with the Assn. of State Dam Safety Officials, a nonprofit organization.

When unprecedented rain struck over the weekend—with Hurricane Joaquin-fueled storms dropping as much as 20 inches of water in some areas—many of the dams were strained beyond capacity.

Some experts said Wednesday that more rigorous dam inspection and oversight would have eased the flood danger. Going forward, residents need to be better prepared to evacuate in severe weather, officials need to move quicker to decide whether controlled water releases are needed to prevent breaches and dams need to be more rigorously monitored, said James H. Knapp, a professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

“The failure of dams has been the major part of the issues on this side of town,” said Knapp, who lives in an area adjacent to Gills Creek, where many upscale homes were submerged. “This has taken most people completely by surprise—there just wasn’t a full appreciation of the vulnerability of these dams before this rain.”

Knapp said he did not understand why people living downstream of the dams had not been warned of potential breaches in advance of the heavy rainfall.

South Carolina is behind other states across the country when it comes to dam safety, Ogden said. In 2014, the state reported performing only 63% of its scheduled inspections for the 180 high hazard dams.

Join us in Atlanta August 18–22, 2019  for StormCon, a five-day special event to learn from experts in various water-related arenas.  Share ideas with peers in your field and across industries—exploring new stormwater management practices and technologies.  Click here for details

Last week I received the following resource-containing e-mail from the Water Research Foundation:

In the weeks coming in South Carolina and other states impacted by Hurricane Joaquin, it will be imperative for water utilities to quickly and accurately assess the impact. Even more importantly is the need for utilities to remain in constant communication with customers, city officials, utility providers, emergency response crews and regulators. In September 2012, the Water Research Foundation released the Report on the Operational and Economic Impacts of Hurricane Irene on Drinking Water Systems in order to help utilities better prepare for future natural disasters.

EPA also has an Emergency Response for Drinking Water and Wastewater Utilities page.

In our May 2014 issue of Water Efficiency, we ran the article “When Nature Strikes”, which discusses the ways two California utilities coped with the disaster effects of a fire in one case, and an earthquake in the other. If you have some of your own lessons learned from severe weather or natural disasters to share with us, please do so in the comments, or write me at [email protected].

Storms Next
Water Efficiency magazine recognizes the ways that water resource management is fundamental to maintaining civilization. It can’t always fit into one silo, so while we have emphasized the handling of potable supplies by the utilities tasked with this work, we surround this core with updates on wastewater; stormwater; irrigation; and commercial, industrial, and institutional water treatment and reuse. Meanwhile, our sister publication, Stormwater, and the affiliated trade show StormCon, carry the full weight of keeping up on all things stormwater.

If you work in the stormwater space, you may have something of value to share with your colleagues, so I am making you aware that the StormCon 2016 call for papers is open.

StormCon is the only North American event dedicated exclusively to stormwater and surface-water professionals, and the time to submit abstracts for presentation at StormCon 2016 is now through Wednesday, December 9.

Next year’s conference will be held in Indianapolis, IN, August 22–25, 2016. For the first time it will be colocated with another large show that also attracts attendees from the municipal arena: WASTECON, the premier solid waste industry-focused conference, put on by the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA). Many of the same high-level public works officials have responsibilities in both the stormwater and solid waste fields. Holding the conferences in the same place allows attendees to get the best of both worlds in the joint exhibit hall and in the educational sessions.

This year, StormCon is seeking abstracts in seven conference tracks: BMP Case Studies, Green Infrastructure, Stormwater Program Management, Advanced Research Topics, Water-Quality Monitoring, Industrial Stormwater Management, and Stormwater Management for Solid Waste Facilities. For more information about StormCon, including the complete call for papers and an online form for submitting your abstract, visit
About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.