South Carolina

Digging new lakes in South Carolina is a terrible idea, scientists say

Heavy rains often cause flooding along Rocky Branch creek in south Columbia. Here, Whaley Street at Main Street is closed by the flooding in 2012.
Heavy rains often cause flooding along Rocky Branch creek in south Columbia. Here, Whaley Street at Main Street is closed by the flooding in 2012. File photograph

A state plan to combat flooding in South Carolina is drawing heavy criticism from a group of retired scientists and state regulators, who said the study includes recommendations that could actually worsen flooding in the Palmetto State.

The recently released Floodwater Commission report, which contains 10 major recommendations, included a call for channelizing rivers and digging new lakes to hold back flood water, while advocating for more development around the lakes.

But that’s a bad idea and should be abandoned, according to the Senior Conservation Leadership Alliance, a recently formed group that says science should be a cornerstone of policy decisions.

New lakes and channelized rivers do little to control flooding, the group said. Instead, the state should encourage the protection of flood plains, wetlands and natural rivers, which naturally allow water to soak into the ground, according to the alliance. Channelizing rivers, which straightens them out, speeds up the flow of water downstream. The group offered its comments in a letter this past week to Gov. Henry McMaster.

“The alteration of natural stream and river channels to clear the way for commercial development allows destruction of naturally functioning systems and increases flooding,’’ the alliance’s comment letter said. “Likewise, creating reservoirs with associated residential development creates future flooding problems, and destroys the natural functionality of the river and associated wetlands.’’

The letter represents the opinion of 22 veteran scientists, retired natural resource officials and conservationists who examined the study commissioned by the governor. The Senior Conservation Leadership Alliance letter was among about 350 public comments to McMaster’s office about the report.

Members of the alliance include Fred Holland, a former chief marine scientist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources; Steve Gilbert, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist; former University of South Carolina environment school Dean Bruce Coull; and Bud Badr, the DNR’s former chief hydrologist.

The alliance’s letter to Floodwater Commission chairman Tom Mullikin also had strong comments against other recommendations in the August study and it took the commission to task for not looking at some issues more carefully.

Most notably, the letter said the report is reacting to climate change, instead of looking for ways to stop or slow down rising global temperatures, such as encouraging the use of alternate fuels and improving energy efficiency.

“Many of the draft recommendations appear to align less with stewardship of our natural resources than with a business as usual, including a ‘build our way out of it,’ approach to the challenge of mitigating and preventing damage from flooding,’’ the letter said.

The alliance’s letter said the Floodwater Commission should have focused more on improving the safety of existing dams and having the government buy out flood prone properties. It says dam safety was “overlooked,’’ even as legislators are seeking to drop regulation for most of the state’s 2,400 dams.

The letter took issue with a recommendation to build artificial reefs off the coast, saying they might worsen beach erosion. The Floodwater Commission report said offshore reefs should be tested to see if they can stop coastal erosion.

A spokesman for Gov. McMaster, who formed the Floodwater Commission last year, said the governor’s office welcomes the comments.

The study, released in late August, was only a draft summary report. A full report will be released next month, with a final report completed after that, McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. In each case, the governor’s office has encouraged public comment, Symmes said.

While the alliance’s letter criticized the commission report for seeking lakes and channels to control flooding, the Floodwater Commission report also advocates protection of wetlands and floodplains and reducing flood plain development.

“The effort that has been put into this process by the volunteer members of the Floodwater Commission can be described as nothing but Herculean,’’ Symmes said. “But we understand that some people would take issue with it. That’s why we opened it for public comment.’’

Those serving on the state Floodwater Commission include an array of business people and politicians, as well as some scientists.

Of the other comments submitted, many called for natural solutions to address flooding, such as protecting floodplains from development. Some of the comments called for more state funding for beach renourishment, while others encouraged the government to buy out flood prone homes to get developed property out of harm’s way.

In addition to the alliance, other groups commenting included the Gills Creek Watershed Association of Columbia, Upstate Forever of Greenville and the S.C. Environmental Law Project of Pawleys Island.

McMaster’s effort to address flooding comes in the aftermath of a historic flood and four hurricanes that have soaked South Carolina since 2015. The historic flood swamped streets and neighborhoods across the Lowcountry, but also in Columbia, where dams in the Gills Creek watershed burst, making flooding worse.

Scientific research suggests South Carolina is feeling the effects of climate change, a phenomenon driven by greenhouse gases that are released from power plants and other sources. Those gases are heating up the planet, causing sea levels to rise, hurricanes to become more intense and weather extremes to become more common.

The problem is predicted to worsen in the future as the earth’s temperatures continue to heat up and sea levels rise.

“It is hard to disassociate our mounting flooding problems from climate change,’’ the alliance’s letter said. “Yet no mention of climate change is in this report. Scientifically, it is a pretty much-uncontested fact that climate change is greatly responsible for increased flooding through sea level rise and amplified storm intensity. ‘’

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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