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Huguley: Rethinking responsibility for stormwater

Apr 11, 2016

By: Mark Huguley | Guest Columnist


  • When stormwater can’t soak into the ground because of driveways, sidewalks, streets and other impervious surfaces, it rushes into lakes

  • With stormwater-storage capacity lost due to dam breaches, less extreme rainfall causes flooding that we now expect individual property owners to put up with

  • Repairing the damage done by stormwater should be a community responsibility instead of an individual responsibility

{With stormwater-storage capacity lost due to dam breaches, it doesn’t take an October-sized event to cause flooding. Here, a DHEC dam inspector looks over a dam in December after heavy rains filled the lake and caused it to spill over the top. | MattWalsh}

COLUMBIA, SC -- A flood neither thinks nor cares, it simply exists, and the great destructive floods last year left most hoping they will never encounter another one. But a flood will return, and even continues in ordinary ways — as stormwater. And the normality of stormwater makes understanding and managing it something we often ignore.

Many people never consider that impervious surfaces such as driveways, sidewalks and streets prevent rainwater from soaking into the ground. Accumulated rainwater on these surfaces becomes known as stormwater and must be controlled, or it will flood roads and property.

Stormwater management relies on a drainage system including ditches, roadside inlets, yard inlets and underground pipes that carry and discharge stormwater to ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. Maintenance of the drainage system is essential for proper function, and is shared between the government and property owners.




The state Transportation Department maintains the storm-drainage systems in state road rights-of-way. The county maintains the storm-drainage systems in county road rights-of-way and within dedicated storm-drainage easements. Small municipalities, with fewer resources, rely often on intergovernmental agreements with the counties for stormwater management. Property owners are generally responsible for routine grounds maintenance such as grass mowing, debris pickup and keeping the flow of water unobstructed.

It sounds straightforward, but deciding who is responsible for maintaining a drainage system is sometimes problematic. While Richland County provides reliable stormwater service, a fairer delineation of responsibility with property owners is needed.

On Skii Lane in Arcadia Lakes, an underground pipe discharges stormwater from a right-of-way into an underground pipe that continues to the outfall. The pipe on private property became blocked by debris from the storm-drainage system, and a home flooded. On Sandy Shore in Arcadia Lakes, the end of another stormwater pipe discharges short of the lakebed intended to receive the water, eroding the backyards of two homes. The opening of the stormwater drainage pipe, called an “outfall,” constantly discharges stormwater onto private property.

In both cases, stormwater from public roads is causing the damage. Yet, individual homeowners are not equipped to maintain underground pipes connecting with a public storm-drain system. Moreover, who would correct mistakes, if they did? Similarly, should homeowners be expected to repair erosion damage produced from an extraordinary discharge of floodwater from a public storm-drain outfall?

To understand this aspect of stormwater, consider a DHEC-commissioned report finding there are 5.26 square miles directly draining to Cary Lake. Roughly one third of the area drains from impervious surfaces, where water never percolates into the soil.

Other lakes have similar conditions. The report found that significant drainage to the lakes in the system above Lake Katherine came from impervious surfaces.

Many of the lakes in the Gills Creek Watershed had abundant surrounding soil to absorb rainfall when they were built. But today, the entire amount of stormwater runoff flows into the lakes as part of the public stormwater management function.

It seemed natural enough to construct roads with drains that discharged stormwater to the nearest lake. But over time, stormwater management supplanted the original recreational purpose of the lakes, and came to provide public benefit as a stormwater “utility.”

Ignorance of this stormwater practice runs as deep as the flood.

Public agencies channeled stormwater onto private property, telling owners, in effect, “You handle the water.”

But that’s not the way it works if your neighbor leaves his garden hose running and washes away the flowers in your garden. When it comes to stormwater, the “neighbor” who left his garden hose running is the community.

Conditions such as those in Arcadia Lakes, including closed public roads on failed private dams, create an impasse. Some think property owners must cope alone, while others believe better policy is needed. With stormwater-storage capacity lost due to dam breaches, flooding from less extreme rainfall might be expected, and requiring certain property owners to shoulder an unfair burden for stormwater is not community spirit.

When the founding fathers “mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor,” they committed to the common good. Today, in our community, stormwater is our mutual responsibility.

Mr. Huguley is mayor of Arcadia Lakes; contact him at [email protected]

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