One tiny drop of rain. It may seem insignificant, but, over time, it can change the course of the environment. When that drop of rain falls, where does it go? What does it mix with at the lowest part of a yard? And what does it pick up along the way? Before long, one drop of water has turned into a stream, and it has picked up whatever is found in its path. That oil the neighbor dumped out or the trash someone just threw out of the car window. It all matters — to Columbia’s residents, neighborhoods and waterways.
A case in point is the Gills Creek Watershed, which covers more than 47,000 acres and includes more than 70 miles of streams in the Greater Columbia area. From above Sesquicentennial State Park through Columbia’s east-side residential neighborhoods on to the Congaree River, the Gills Creek Watershed touches all Columbia residents in some way, regardless of the location of their homes or businesses.
Gills Creek’s significance dates back thousands of years when it sustained Native American settlements. From then until now, this area has seen continuous development, including plantations, cemeteries, recreational parks, new lakes, towns and cities.
From Spring Valley to Wildewood, Sesqui to Arcadia Lake, Fort Jackson to Lake Katharine, Forest Lake to Gills Creek, the beautiful lakes and streams across Columbia offer endless recreational activities. Fish and wildlife live in these waterways and many use these streams as a source for food and drinking water. However, these precious resources are now in danger due to increased sedimentation, siltation, pollution and contamination.
In fact, the Gills Creek Watershed is one of South Carolina’s most impaired watersheds. While some areas of the watershed look like natural creeks, others around the Forest Drive and Garners Ferry Road areas have pushed the pavement right up to the creek edges, making the creeks more susceptible to erosion, flooding and transportation of sediment downstream. Even natural-appearing creeks can be impaired with high levels of pollutants and toxins such as mercury. Impairment can be biological as well as physical. This is just one small, yet very important part of an expansive watershed that goes through seven jurisdictions and needs the alignment of city, county and municipal agencies in order to allow for changes and improvements.
More than 20 years ago, concerned citizens in Columbia began looking into ways to restore and protect the watershed. Increasing frustration from the silt that was causing lakes to fill up with sand and trash coming into the waterways was the impetus for residents to unite and share a voice about their concerns for the waterways. The Gills Creek Watershed Association was created as a partnership of citizens, government, organizations and businesses dedicated to restoring and protecting the Gills Creek Watershed.
Elliott Powell was instrumental in helping bring the challenges of the watershed to the attention of the county and the city, who came together in support of improving and protecting the watershed. “We are one of the first organizations of this type to get the city and county working together to the degree we have,” says Elliott, who served as president of the Gills Creek Watershed Association for more than seven years. “We came up with about 20 different issues and, in a roundtable discussion, were able to come to consensus on all of them. We made significant headway on a subject that needed to be addressed.”
Elliott stresses that the association is a private, non-governmental group, whose goal is to educate and inform the public on what the watershed is. And, in essence, it can be seen as the storm water system for a substantial part of Columbia. Imagine if that drop of rain were a hurricane or major storm event.
“We would like for everyone to view the waterways as a utility, so that if we have advance notice of a major rain event, we can work together to open the flood gates on each of the lakes to release water and lower the levels so that there is enough capacity to hold water and prevent flooding,” says Elliott. “If we are unified in that, we can avoid major damage to property, homes and landscapes.”
Ensuring residents see the correlation between all of Columbia’s waterways, regardless of location, is critical to the continued improvement of the lakes and streams. “Very few people see the relationships from one area to another,” says Emily Jones, current president of the Gills Creek Watershed Association. “They don’t understand that a project upstream or away from a creek can impact the creek condition. Helping people understand the concept of the watershed is so important. In many cases, these creeks have been treated like backyard ditches, ignored and not treated as a community asset. But there is still time to improve upon that thinking.”
A stellar example is Cross Hill Market. EDENS and Whole Foods saw the value of creating a sense of community in this area near Gills Creek and the center of the watershed. The area was previously an eyesore but has since been revitalized with shopping and restaurants, all while being cognizant of ways to protect the watershed. The parking lot includes rain gardens, which enable the flowers to take advantage of rainwater while reducing runoff.
“This is one of the first areas in Columbia to do this in a commercial setting,” says Emily. “It’s another important level of proactivity and shows how applications can be used in a commercial environment.” Since much of the watershed is already paved over, retro-fitting and re-development become critical in limiting run-off and improving watershed functions.
Elliott agrees that this area has been pivotal to the revitalization of the community. “When you can have a business spend extra money on things like this, while also giving back to the community, not only does the business reap the rewards in the future, but so do the residents of Columbia,” he says.
Rain gardens are certainly a start and are instrumental in capturing rainwater and infiltrating the soil, but there are countless other ways businesses and homeowners can help to protect the watershed and the environment as a whole. It starts with being more proactive and paying attention to where the rain falls and how it falls on a homeowner’s land and throughout neighborhoods. Rain barrels are ideal for collecting water and in some cases can capture more than 50 gallons of rain in the course of only 20 minutes.
This water can be used to water lawns, flowers and plants and can save countless gallons of water each year. “I use a rain barrel in my garden, and when you start to add them up, it’s very helpful in reducing a high level of run off that can contribute to the flash floods that often affect Gills Creek,” says Emily. It also cuts down on her water bill.
Equally important is watching how waste is disposed, ensuring oils, paints, grease and other materials are not poured into household or storm drains. Using proper amounts of fertilizer and pesticides helps to ensure extra waste doesn’t run into the water system. Additionally, placing yard debris away from storm drains, properly disposing of the ever-present pet waste and always picking up litter are other ways to help keep the watershed waste and pollutant-free.
Significant plans are in place to improve the waterways. Multiple sites through the watershed are having water sensors installed, which measure water levels and pollutants and over time will help the association determine the sources and extent of the problems.
The continued education and open dialogue with construction companies and builders will also help curb the mismanagement of construction sites that can negatively affect the watershed. The build-up of sand in the waterways caused by run off has produced significant problems in the watershed, but the association is working to provide better monitoring and enforcement. Furthermore, the association is working with the city and county to establish mitigation banks to give contractors incentives to keep sand on the building sites and out of the water.
Mitigation banking is defined as “the restoration, creation, enhancement or preservation of a wetland, stream, or other habitat area undertaken expressly for the purpose of compensating for unavoidable resource losses in advance of development actions … ”
It’s a very complex problem for which the association is trying to gain cooperation. “This is one of the biggest and most expensive issues we face,” says Elliott.
As with all of the challenges associated with the watershed, it’s about protecting Columbia’s most precious resource — water. Painstaking steps are taken across the world to ensure water is clean and sanitary. That same care should be given to Columbia’s watersheds.
“Right in our own backyard is where we need help,” says Elliott. “Every drop of rain that falls within that 78 square miles is inevitably in the watershed. The reality is, people are starting to take it more seriously and bring light to this basic, yet vital, resource. It’s one issue we can and should all agree on. Don’t trash the water you will eventually drink!”
It takes a conscious, concerted effort on the part of all Columbia residents and businesses, and it all comes down to one easy thing. “Be attuned to your little piece of geography,” recommends Emily, “and how it relates to the larger context.” That one drop of rain on the lawn can make all the difference in the world.