Work underway to find solution to Upstate dam older than its intended lifespan

Published: Feb. 5, 2023 at 11:12 PM EST
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GREENVILLE, S.C. (FOX Carolina) - The race is on to ease concerns about the Lake Conestee Dam, which is decades older than its original intended lifespan.

People from Greenville to Greenwood say if the dam breaks, it could lead to an environmental disaster.

“This is a disaster that South Carolina does not have to have,” said Ralph Cushing.

Cushing and his wife moved to Lake Greenwood less than a year ago, an area they love and are now fighting to help protect.

“I was upset, of course. And I was concerned, and I was scared,” he said.

Lake Conestee Dam is nearly 50 miles away from the Cushing’s home. According to a 2019 report, the dam was built in 1892 and is well past its original intended service life.

A DHEC inspection from August gave the dam an overall rating of “poor”.

“I’m not an engineer. I can’t speculate as to whether the dam would go today, tomorrow, or anytime. I don’t think anybody can,” said State Rep. John McCravy, who represents District 13 which includes Greenwood and Laurens Counties.

The dam is on the main stem of the Reedy River, which flows down to Lake Greenwood and beyond.

The dam holds back water DHEC says has previously tested above the EPA acceptable levels for metals, pesticides, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs).

“I look at it more as an emergency,” says McCravy.

McCravy says addressing the dam is his number one priority, an effort that gained momentum last year after Upstate lawmakers secured $3 million to come up with a plan.

Now McCravy and others are trying to get $48 million from the state budget to help build a new dam 10-feet downstream from where the current one stands.

“They would prevent the release of any, you know if something happens to the 130-year-old something dam, then it would stop it from going downstream,” said McCravy.

As work at the statehouse is ongoing, Cushing began a Facebook group called “Save Lake Greenwood”, which already has more than 1,400 members.

“This isn’t really just about lake life and recreation life in Lake Greenwood. Two counties get their drinking water from this lake. If this happens, that’s going to change that. The economy here,” he said.

McCravy says it would take about three years to build the new dam once the funding is secured. He expects the budget to be passed sometime in the next few months.

The Conestee Nature Preserve is in charge of the Lake Conestee Dam, in a statement to FOX Carolina they say,

“When Conestee Nature Preserve was founded by a small nonprofit, with a vision of preserving wildlife habitat and providing public access to a natural space near the heart of urban Greenville, the organization also inherited a problem of historical contamination and an aging dam.

Studies over the years determined that the contaminants pose no threat as long as they and the newer sediments above them, holding them in place, remain undisturbed. That fits perfectly with the mission and vision of Conestee Nature Preserve, but it means the dam must remain in place. No small challenge. The dam was built in 1892, and with the added complexity of the contamination behind it, solutions were always exceedingly costly. Despite years of focused effort, Conestee Nature Preserve and its partners were unable to find a viable solution and secure adequate funding before now.

Last year, the project was awarded 3 million dollars from the South Carolina general state budget, to be managed by the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control (DHEC). Further funding requests for this project to state, Greenville County, Greenville City, corporate, and other potential sources are in progress or planned for this year. Together, these should fund the project in full.

A coalition of consultants, partners, and stakeholders continue working together toward solutions. Kleinschmidt is leading engineering efforts, with Alan Johnson of Caliber Engineering consulting. Kelly Lowry of Lowry and Associates was appointed as Trustee by DHEC of the Lake Conestee Dam Restoration Fund. Regular stakeholder meetings allow for input from constituents from Greenville, Greenwood, and Laurens such as state and local elected officials, Commissioners of Public Works, DHEC, ReWa, Duke Energy, and City and County staff.

Solving problems as complex as this one takes time, but thanks to all these partners, and to much public support, Conestee Nature Preserve is on the verge of resolution."

-Erin Knight, Operations Director