COLUMBIA — South Carolina learned a lot of lessons from the historic flood of 2015, lessons tested as Hurricane Matthew slammed the state’s coast and caused flooding to the north that is now gushing through South Carolina’s rivers en route to the coast.

“The first lesson is: when the National Weather Service and other forecasters say 12 inches of rain is coming to your state, listen. Be prepared,” said Jill Stewart, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, told attendees of the S.C. Water Resources Conference on Wednesday.

Destructive volumes of water blasted through cities and suburbs during the 2015 flood. Power went out. Dams breached. Highways shut down. Roads crumbled. Bridges collapsed.

Destructive volumes of water blasted through cities and suburbs during the 2015 flood.
Image Credit: Jacob Stokes / Clemson University

Lesson No. 2: communicate early and often. As the weather forecast worsened, DHEC contacted dam owners across the state with tips and steps for dam monitoring, said Stewart, the agency’s director of dam safety and stormwater permitting. As of Tuesday, 15 dams had breached. After the flood a year ago, 51 regulated and unregulated dams had breached, Stewart said.

Stewart was among the state and federal officials, scientists and other speakers at the conference to share insights from the historic of flood of 2015 and discuss South Carolina’s response, readiness and recovery efforts for another significant weather event.

The fifth biennial conference brings experts together to communicate new research methods and scientific knowledge; educate scientists, engineers and water professionals; and disseminate useful information to policymakers, water managers, industry stakeholders, citizen groups and the public.

Nearly 350 people registered for the conference, which includes four plenary sessions, 36 breakout sessions and 108 oral presentations and examine an array of poster presentations. The conference is organized into seven tracks, including: Water Policy and Planning; Surface Water and Groundwater Systems; Stormwater; Hydrologic Monitoring and Modeling; Climate, Floods and Drought; Infrastructure; and Coastal and Estuarine Systems.

Stewart’s No. 3 lesson: collect, evaluate and share data to help agencies and communities prepare.

“We thought we would have a little more time to learn from our lessons, but unfortunately we didn’t,” Stewart said.

Clemson University is working to create a program to continuously assess South Carolina’s capacity to provide water for sustainable agricultural, recreational, industrial, municipal and residential use, said Jeffery Allen, director of the university’s South Carolina Water Resources Center.

Jeffery Allen

Jeffery Allen

“The program will provide an objective source of data using the latest technologies to project future needs, capacity and impacts. This science-based information would be crucial to developing sustainable strategies for protecting and providing water resources for South Carolina’s growing economy and population,” Allen said. “We’re working hard in this state to make sure we don’t have an albatross of water problems tied around our neck.”

While flood response has been tested, drought remains a concern. Before the 2015 flood hit, 35 South Carolina counties were declared primary natural disaster areas by the federal government due to drought.

The potential for future droughts coupled with increased water demand as populations rise underscore the need for water resource planning, said Scott Harder of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. DNR and DHEC, with assistance from Clemson University, are in the midst of a study to assess the amount of surface water available in the state’s eight river basins. That information could be available by the end of the year, he said. An assessment of ground water availability will follow, along with forecasts of future water demand, to create regional water resource plans, Harder said. That information will help identify areas that would be stressed in periods of drought and plan accordingly.

“We need to be prepared for more severe drought in the future,” Harder said.

Future floods are likely as well. Toby Feaster, hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, pointed out that while the 2015 flood was described as a 1,000-year event, on the Congaree River, it ranked just eighth out of the 123 events recorded since the 1850s.

Nearly 350 people registered for the S.C. Water Resources Conference in Columbia.

Nearly 350 people registered for the S.C. Water Resources Conference in Columbia.
Image Credit: Jonathan Veit / Clemson University

In August 1908, the Congaree crested at 39.8 feet and pushed 364,000 cubic feet of water per second. By comparison, the Congaree crested at 31.8 feet and pushed 185,000 cubic feet of water during the 2015 flood. That’s still enough water to fill two Olyimpic-sized swimming pools every second.

“Last year was devastating, but it has happened before and it’s likely to happen again,” Feaster said.

As the two-day conference continues on Thursday, South Carolina legislators will discuss the state’s preparedness and response to significant flooding events and state water planning. The panel discussion will be broadcast live at beginning at 8:15 a.m.

Sen. Paul Campbell will serve as the moderator and the panel participants include Sens. Vincent Sheheen and Danny Verdin, who serve on the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee; and Reps. Roger Kirby and Russell Ott, who serve on the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee.