Despite its unhealthy amounts of pollution over the years, the Reedy River has become one of downtown Greenville’s most treasured spots for recreation.
Every year, thousands congregate around the river’s scenic shoal and waterfall at Falls Park. And thousands more enjoy sports and various recreational activities along the river at Cleveland Park and Lake Conestee Nature Park.
“The Reedy River is the central focus of downtown Greenville,” said Heather Nix, director of the clean water program for environmental advocacy group Upstate Forever. “It’s one of the many reasons why Greenville has become such a success story.”
But many residents believe the river needs more access points outside the city.
“The river is more than a scenic downtown attraction,” said Michael Jones, a Simpsonville resident. “It’s my getaway place for fishing, kayaking, and swimming.”
The Reedy begins in Travelers Rest and meanders through the City of Greenville to Lake Greenwood. The upper portion of the river’s 75-mile path includes the urban areas of the City of Greenville, Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn.
Jones, like many other residents, relies on Cedar Falls Park in Fountain Inn to access the Reedy. The 90-acre park, which was created in 2011 by Greenville County, is the only public site outside the city that offers adequate access to the river.
“My family loves Cedar Falls, but it’d be nice if there were other access points that don’t require me to drive to downtown,” said Jones.
Unfortunately, the river must be clean enough for local governments to promote recreation and create public access points, according to Nix.
Since the 1900s, the river has experienced severe pollution from nearby textile mills, sewage discharges, and runoff from increased urbanization.
Now much of the river is listed by the state as “impaired,” a designation that signals possible health risks and causes local governments to prohibit swimming, kayaking, and other recreational activities, according to Nix.
The state, however, only measures whether or not a waterway is clean enough for swimming, not boating, according to Nix. “The river is often clean enough to boat or paddle in even if it’s not swimmable,” she said.
Greenville County currently doesn’t permit swimming in any river or lake on park property and has mounted signs at Cedar Falls Park to warn visitors about the “high level of pollution that makes swimming, wading, and kayaking unhealthy and dangerous,” according to spokesman Bob Mihalic.
Cedar Falls is one of 10 Upstate swimming holes on DHEC’s advisory list, which also includes Falls Park in downtown Greenville, Pelham Falls along the Enoree River south of Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, and Long Shoals park along the Little Eastatoe Creek in Pickens County.
The Reedy, however, is federally designated as a “navigable waterway.” The designation essentially removes the river from county jurisdiction, making the warning signs nothing more than mere suggestions, according to Nix.
In fact, it’s completely legal to kayak, fish, or swim the river via public access points.
In addition to Cedar Falls Park, Cleveland Park is the only other known public site in Greenville County that offers adequate access points for recreation on the Reedy, according to Katie Hottel, GIS coordinator for Upstate Forever.
Finding the Source
Unfortunately, the lack of public access points could persist in the coming years.
“The Reedy has come a long way and its water quality has significantly improved over the years,” said Nix. “But it’s an urban river, which means it’s going to have issues.”
Despite years of effort and cleanup, Greenville’s portion of the Reedy continues to be hampered by excessive amounts of E. coli bacteria, which come from the digestive systems of animals and flow downstream from various sources, including cattle farms, leaky sewer pipes, and pet waste.
“E. coli bacteria impair waterways and can contaminate sources of drinking water, limit recreation opportunities, damage the habitat of fish and other aquatic animals and plants, and make humans and pets ill if ingested,” said Maddi Phillips, community relations coordinator for the Greenville County Soil and Water Conservation District.
According to Phillips, dog waste remains one of the leading contributors to the Reedy River’s excessive E. coli bacteria levels.
“Dog poop contains much higher levels of E. coli bacteria than that of geese, deer, and other wildlife and does not make for good fertilizer due to the bacteria content. When left on the ground, pet waste is carried by stormwater into local waterways,” said Phillips.
Luckily, the presence of E. coli itself doesn’t necessarily indicate unhealthy water.
“It’s presence just means there’s fecal contamination. Of course, there are some strands of E. coli that are harmful. But it’s typically used for fresh waters as an indicator that there’s something there that could have pathogens or viruses with it,” said Erika Hollis, clean water project manager for Upstate Forever.
The Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies actually use E. coli bacteria as the standard for whether a waterway is suitable for swimming.
DHEC regularly collects and analyzes water samples from the Reedy River for the bacteria. It currently has 18 monitoring stations located on the river.
Data collected from these sites determine whether or not aquatic life and recreational use are supported in the river. The water is determined to be above acceptable levels if E. coli exceeds 349 MPN/100 mL.
In terms of recreation, much of the Reedy River is classified as “poor.” In fact, more than a dozen sites in Greenville County were listed as “impaired” for recreation by the state in 2016 due to heightened levels of E. coli bacteria.
But the bacteria are typically difficult to track, because the presence of E. coli can fluctuate based on numerous factors, including rainwater, according to Hollis.
“E. coli is tricky, because it takes a day to incubate. DHEC can take a sample, but they don’t know if it’s safe until the next day, so they have to be really preventative. That’s one of the reasons for all the signs from the city and county,” she said.
Greenville’s increasing amount of development, which causes runoff from paved surfaces and construction sites, also threatens the river’s water quality.
Dozens of pipes from parking lots and roads dump sometimes untreated storm water in the river, according to Patricia Carson, executive director of Friends of the Reedy River. And trash is usually swept downstream when the river overflows during rainstorms.
In northern Greenville County, for example, increased storm water runoff has increased the magnitude of peak flows within the river, resulting in loss of aquatic habitat, bank erosion, and increased sediment loading.
The Reedy is also adversely affected by large amounts of litter within its channel and along its banks. “The river has basically become the dump station for Greenville,” said Jones. “I think more people would be out on the Reedy if it was cleaner.”
Cleaning the River
As the region’s population and economy continues to expand, the demand on the Reedy will continue to increase, according to Nix. Luckily, partners ranging from regional conservation groups to local governments are collaborating to combat further contamination of the river.
The Reedy River Water Quality Group, for instance, includes a diverse collection of stakeholders, ranging from local governments to conservation groups, who are working together to address the river’s problems.
The group aims to “develop water quality improvement plans using water quality monitoring, river system modeling, public education on pollution prevention, successful practice review and economic impact analysis.”
Since 2015, for instance, the City of Greenville, Renewable Water Resources, and Greenville County have worked together to administer a cost share assistance program within the Huff Creek Watershed, which feeds into the Reedy River, to help home and business owners repair or replace their failing septic tanks.
The Reedy River Water Quality Group also compiles water quality data from about 17 grab sample and continuous monitoring locations along the river. The monitoring locations are primarily operated by Greenville County, the City of Greenville, Renewable Water Resources, and DHEC.
For future efforts, the group is currently working to identify best management practices based on their effectiveness, cost, and overall benefit to the community.
BMPs can include landscape activities, prohibitions of practices, maintenance procedures, treatment requirements, and other management practices to prevent or reduce the pollution of waters of the United States.
For example, the city of Greenville is currently putting in place a series of stormwater management regulations, a move that will substantially reduce the amount of pollution that runs off of city streets and construction sites.
The county, too, is strengthening its stormwater program, and developers are showing increasing interest in lower-impact techniques.
Local governments and private organizations are also working to educate people living within the Reedy River Watershed about the importance of protecting water quality and the river around which they make their homes.
“We offer school programs about water quality, but we also sometimes go out to private properties and give residents technical advice about erosion issues to keep bacteria out of the waterways,” said Kirsten Robertson, district manager for the Greenville County Soil and Water Conservation District.
The county has also launched a campaign that aims to encourage dog owners to clean up after their pets, according to Robertson.
“People really are the biggest threat to the river. It’s not the industries anymore, because those entities are regulated. But when someone pours their used motor oil in a ditch or refuse to pick up after their pets, it’s causing problems,” she said.
“It really does take a village”
Various conservation groups throughout the region have also worked through the years to improve the Reedy’s water quality by assisting with education and outreach events and implementing cleanup and pollution prevention programs.
For example, Friends of the Reedy River currently holds two cleanup events each year, and Upstate Forever started an Adopt a Stream program, which trains volunteers to monitor water quality along the river and its tributaries.
One volunteer monitoring group found evidence of a sewage leak that had gone undetected, and repairs stopped the flow of bacteria into the river, according to Nix.
“Our government agencies don’t always have the time or resources to tackle the Reedy’s water quality issues by themselves, so it’s very important to have volunteers,” said Carson. “It really does take a village to get things done sometimes.”
Residents can help keep the Reedy clear by cleaning up after pets, planting native plants near waterways, installing fewer impervious surfaces, and reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, said Hollis. They can also participate in water quality monitoring efforts and cleanup events offered by local conservation groups.
Earlier this year, DHEC partnered with the Clemson University Center for Watershed Excellence to launch the South Carolina Adopt-A-Stream program.
The program aims to promote and expand existing volunteer stream monitoring efforts across the state by providing a website for information, a database to maintain water quality monitoring data, training classes, and materials, and other useful resources, according to a press release.
“South Carolina is home to some of the most beautiful streams, rivers, and watersheds in the world, and we are committed to doing our part to protect these beloved natural resources,” said Catherine E. Heigel, director of S.C. DHEC. “Our citizens deserve the opportunity to fish, swim, and play in clean rivers and streams and this program helps make that a reality.”
Residents who join the program will be certified in documenting the conditions of a river, streambed, streambanks, and floodplain; tracking basic stream conditions over time; and monitoring for any indication of fecal pollution and populations of macroinvertebrates like crayfish, which are indicators of healthy or polluted waterways.
They will also be trained and certified in sample and data collection protocols designed to inform future monitoring efforts, infrastructure repairs, restoration priorities, and more, according to Buckley.
Nix said continued monitoring and cleanup efforts, along with public support for the Reedy, should keep water quality on an upward trend.
A River of Potential
Despite its poor water quality, the Reedy will likely continue to be a recreational hub for residents as the region grows, according to Nix.
“Greenville and other cities will need more park space for people to get outside,” she said. “There’s a lot of potential for pocket parks along the river.”
According to Mihalic, Greenville County continues to evaluate the possibility of more recreation sites along the river as water quality improves.
For now, Upstate Forever is working to create a blueway map for the Reedy as part of its “Reconnecting People to Rivers” initiative.
“‘Reconnecting People to Rivers’ is helping communities recognize the recreation, tourism, and economic potential of local rivers and highlights the importance of protecting our water resources,” said Nix.
The Reedy’s map, which will start at Cleveland Park and end at Lake Greenwood, will highlight access locations, designated parking areas, difficulty of river rapids, nearby parks, and cultural and historic features, according to Hottel.
“We’ve been working on the map for a while, but the river’s lack of access points has been holding us up a bit,” said Hottel. “While access to the Reedy is improving, there’s still not a lot known about the river’s selection of recreational opportunities.”
In Laurens County, recreation sites along the river have come and gone on public and private property over the years. But below the Reedy, Lake Greenwood offers swimming, fishing, boating, and other recreational opportunities.
“We’re working to map out sections of the river that can be paddled,” said Hottel. “We have to go out and paddle them ourselves, because we don’t want to put places on the map if they’re dangerous or bottom out a lot.”
As for swimming, Upstate residents are probably better off boating for now.
“It’s probably OK to swim in the river most of the time since E. coli levels can fluctuate so often,” said Nix. “But testing results do sometimes show extremely elevated levels of bacteria in the water, so it’s probably best to stay out.”
For more information, visit cleanreedy.org.