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A car in the water
Hatchback has been stuck in Wateree River since November
Car in Water
A hatchback Toyota Rav-4 sits near the Lugoff bank of the Wateree River directly across from Kershaw County Soil & Water Conservation Commissioner David Rodgers property. Rodgers said the car originally went into the water closer to the Wateree Dam (several 1,000 feet to the right of this scene) in November 2018 and that stronger water flow pushed it downstream to where it is now, just south of the mouth to Sawney’s Creek in February. - photo by Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Drive about 5-1/2 miles north on S.C. 97 from where it splits off from North Broad Street in Camden’s Dusty Bend and you’ll come to Lorick Horton Road. Take a left and quickly curve right to stay on the old paved road. Three-quarters of a mile later, you’ll cross a creek called Rocky Branch. The aging pavement ends, the dirt begins and the name changes to Hazelwood Drive. Another 3/4-mile on, including an almost hairpin left curve, and there’s a large wooden gate that was open on Friday morning, May 31.

Now you’re on what constitutes the driveway of David Rodgers’ 300 acres worth of woods, his wife’s garden and greenhouse, working fields of various crops, a barn, other outbuildings and the couple’s home a short walk away from the edge of the Wateree River.

Giving careful directions, Rodgers, who is an elected Kershaw County Soil & Water Conservation District commissioner, points the way to a long strip of cleared land near the riverbank where he and his son grow hops. Trees line the bank itself and there are a couple of spots with picnic tables, chairs and grills to enjoy the view.

That view has been marred since February.

A white hatchback Toyota Rav-4 is stuck in the water on the Lugoff side of the river, directly across from Rodgers’ property.

“I first saw it bobbing below the boat landing,” Rodgers said.

That was sometime in November, almost seven months ago. From what Rodgers understands, some people were enjoying themselves up at a boat landing near the tailraces -- the water channels below the dam. No one was in the car at the time, but, somehow, it ended up in the water and the strong current pushed it away from the boat landing.

It stayed there for several months until February when stronger water flows pushed it downstream several thousand feet to just a bit south of the mouth of Sawney’s Creek. Right where Rodgers and his family could see it. It has been there since, stuck on a gravel bar.

“It’s bad for South Carolina,” Rodgers said. “The state will get on you if you dump anything, but they can’t seem to do anything about a car in the water.”

Rodgers said he contacted the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), including people who work with the soil and conservation districts. He claimed he got the runaround.

“They just kicked the can around. It’s sad because this area is so beautiful,” he said.

Kershaw County Sheriff Lee Boan said he has been aware of the car for some time. Boan said he believed the water had been too swift and too cold to be safe for either the county’s or DNR’s dive teams during the winter months the car has been in the water. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t think something shouldn’t be done.

“I agree it shouldn’t stay there,” Boan said. “There could be fluids leaking.”

Several days after Rodgers showed off where the car is, Boan said he thought conditions might now be such that it would be “good practice” for a dive team to be involved. There was a caveat, though.

“I think the car’s been totaled by the owner’s insurance company. Maybe we can see if we can get it out, and then bill the insurance,” he said.

There was also a question about whether Duke Energy, which manages Lake Wateree and the Wateree Dam, could end up being involved.

Duke’s lead communications consultant, Kim Crawford said the company’s jurisdiction ends at the dam. That doesn’t mean they might not be able to help.

“We could restrict the flow coming out of the dam, like we do to help with water rescues,” Crawford said during a phone conversation June 4.

As it turned out, the next day, June 5, Duke was planning a “no-flow period” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in order to do some work up by the tailraces. Unfortunately, neither the sheriff’s office, DNR nor a private towing service could be mobilized fast enough to take advantage of the situation. And there was some question as to whether the “no-flow” would have helped.

Several people the C-I spoke to, including Boan, wondered if some type of inflatable devices would be needed to lift the car up high enough in the water and off the gravel bar to move.

Also on June 4, Lorianne Riggin, director of DNR’s Office of Environmental Programs, responded to an email inquiry. Riggin said the office’s new soil and water conservation district program manager had been trying to get back in touch with Rodgers. Rodgers often advises people to text him as cellphone service is spotty on his property.

Meanwhile, Riggins said DNR’s role and responsibility in situations like these falls under the category of navigational hazards.

“Our law enforcement division will mark such (things) as hazards when notified,” Riggins said. “DNR will investigate this car and determine its status in regards to a hazard to navigation, but will also try and get identifying information off the car such as the VIN number to determine ownership. DNR law enforcement will coordinate that information to the local sheriff’s office in case the car was stolen or involved in an accident.”

Riggins also said a complete removal of the car would involve not only her department and the sheriff’s office, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control “to ensure that hazardous materials do not leak out of the vehicle during removal.”

Riggins wrote back on Friday to say that DNR is now planning an operation to remove the car.

“The car was marked with a hazard buoy,” she said, something Rodgers confirmed over the weekend after being out of town for several days. “DNR staff are going to assess the situation after the rain event and continue to watch and work with water flows (dam discharge) and acquiring the necessary equipment to flat the vehicle to the nearest landing for removal.”

Also Friday, Boan said he had spoken with DNR officials and learned that they had made contact with the owner’s insurance company.

“They will pay to have it taken out,” he said, adding that DNR is apparently offering its dive team to assist in the car’s removal.

Boan also said the buoy makes things a little safer in the water because it helps kayakers and others see the car ahead of time sooner.

“It’s not easy to move, but it needs to be moved,” he said.

The question now: Exactly when?

Duke put out a series of statements during the last several days that the Catawba River Basin is experiencing significant inflows from weekend rains, including a very heavy line of thunderstorms stretching from North Carolina all the way through South Carolina and into Georgia.

“The Hickory (N.C.) area has received more than 11 inches of rainfall in the last 48 hours and additional rainfall is in the forecast,” Duke officials said Sunday’s statement. “The Duke Energy hydro operations team is aggressively moving water through the river system with floodgates open at Wylie Hydro. The Wateree Hydro station continues to generate all five generators for lake management. Lake Wateree is forecast to spill late Monday night/early Tuesday morning, but is not expected to exceed 102.5 feet.”

Additional information from Duke indicated it believes Lake Wateree will crest Thursday at 101 feet.

However, the Lake Wateree Association noted that as of 11 a.m. Monday, the National Weather Service (NWS) is predicting the lake will crest at 102.6 feet on Wednesday.

Duke encouraged those living along lakes, streams and other low-lying and flood-prone areas to pay special attention to changing weather conditions and take any necessary precautions.

As of 10:20 a.m. Monday, the lake was at 96.1 feet, leaving Rodgers to wait a little longer for the view from his riverside property to be cleared up.

In addition, the National Weather Service (NWS) has issued a Flood Warning for the Wateree River from this morning to Friday morning.

As of 11 a.m. Monday, the river was at 19.2 feet; flood stage is 27 feet. The NWS said the river would rise above flood stage Tuesday morning and crest around 32.9 feet Wednesday before falling back below flood stage  Thursday.

At 29 feet, INVISTA can become flooded; at 32 feet, livestock can be cut off on small islands south of Camden.

“Unfortunately, with all the rain this past weekend, the current is running really strong, making it dangerous for DNR to get out there,” DNR Public Information/Social Media Coordinator Kaley Lawrimore said Monday morning. “We’ll have to play it by ear to see when the current calms down before we can move forward.”

(The online version of this story has been updated to include the correct model of the car, with thanks to someone who was able to take a close up photo of the vehicle.)