COLUMBUS — The prospect of paying for costly repairs to an at-risk dam in Polk County played a key role in killing a water partnership with a South Carolina district last month.

The collapse of that deal has left Polk officials on the hook for fixing the structure, with low-end estimates for the project totaling nearly $3 million.

Polk County commissioners voted unanimously Monday, Nov. 16, to restart a plan to repair 90-year-old Turner Shoals Dam at Lake Adger, a water resource that’s been caught in political cross hairs of late.

“We’re now at that point in time, consistent with the schedule we passed last year, where we need to move forward to the next phase of the dam repairs,” Dave Odom, the county’s chief engineering contractor, told the board, which approved spending some $100,000 for a comprehensive stability evaluation of the dam this fiscal year, with an eye toward spending a similar amount next year on a structural repair plan.

Then, as Odom explained in a proposed repair schedule prepared in the summer of 2014, the repair plan could be permitted by state agencies and construction could begin. He estimated that, all told, the job will last until 2019 and cost the county about $2.76 million. Other estimates by consultants in recent years have predicted that the repairs could cost substantially more.

Odom’s proposed repair plan, along with the other documents cited in this report, can be read below.

Repair efforts on hold during water transfer negotiations

The 90-year-old dam is classified as “high hazard” due to risks to life and property should the structure fail. But the initial plan to repair it languished during the past year of negotiations between Polk County and the Inman-Campobello Water District in upstate South Carolina.

Last month, ICWD pulled out of a potential plan to manage Polk’s water system for as long as 75 years, citing the cost of dam repairs as a main deterrent to sealing the deal.

The last draft of the contract, sent by Polk County to ICWD, assigned dam repair responsibilities to the South Carolina district for the length of the proposed transfer.

ICWD hired a consulting firm to evaluate the draft. In early October, the company, Black & Veatch, advised against moving forward with a transfer, largely because of the dam expenses.

“We strongly advise against ICWD agreeing to cover annual maintenance and operation costs (for the dam) for the 75-year contract term,” B&V wrote in its evaluation. “We believe that it would be unwise for ICWD to assume liability on a structure that it does not own.”

Based on that advice, ICWD opted out of the water transfer negotiations, putting the matter back in the hands of Polk County, which purchased Lake Adger in 2009 for $1.6 million. While the lake is not presently used to feed Polk’s water system, the county has received authorization from the state to use Adger as a water source should the need arise.

In an Oct. 13 email to Odom, a state dam safety engineer, Bill Denton, reiterated Polk’s duties regarding the dam.

“As always, it remains the dam owner’s responsibility … to maintain and operate the dam in a manner that protects the downstream public,” he wrote, adding that the county should follow up on a 2014 dam safety report “in a timely fashion and take any and all other steps necessary to protect the downstream public.”

Future water options outlined in report commissioned by activist group

During the past year of debate about Polk and ICWD’s long-term plans, an activist group, Protect Polk Water, formed in opposition to the transfer. At the Nov. 16 meeting, Ray Gasperson, the sole Democrat on Polk’s board of commissioners and only critic of the transfer plan, presented a consultant’s report commissioned by the group.

The report, prepared by Asheville-based firm McGill Associates, laid out several future scenarios for Polk’s water system, including the notion of an expanded county water authority that would include the towns of Columbus, Tryon and Saluda. At present, residents of those towns are served by either private wells or their towns’ respective water systems.

While Gasperson suggested that an expanded authority was an option that merited exploration, most other board members disagreed. Board Chair Tom Pack said the McGill report offered “nothing new.”

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Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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