Restoring the Reedy: Greenville’s premier waterway is getting a makeover

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Ohio-based urban design and landscape architecture firm MKSK has been hired by the city of Greenville to create a more natural course for the Reedy River by sculpting the banks of a 30-foot channel that runs through West Greenville. Officials say the project could provide a boost to the river's water quality and alleviate flooding further downstream in downtown. Photo by Will Crooks.

The Reedy River has become a crown jewel for Greenville, and now the city has launched a new project to improve the river’s water quality and reduce flooding that has long been a concern for downtown.

Despite its recent status as a downtown attraction, the Reedy historically has been one of the most-polluted waterways in South Carolina. Once the dumping ground for local textile mills, the upper portion of the 65-mile-long river is said to have changed colors daily, depending on which dyes mills were using to color fabrics, according to Greenville Mayor Knox White.

The river’s water quality has improved over the past few decades thanks to cleanup efforts by a number of local conservation groups and government agencies. The latest project, which is part of Unity Park’s construction in West Greenville, aims to create a more natural course for the river by sculpting its banks, said Darren Meyer, principal of the Columbus, Ohio-based urban design and landscape architecture firm MKSK, which was hired by the city to come up with a plan for the park and surrounding area.

Meyer said his firm plans to expand the park’s active floodplain by excavating a bankfull bench, which is a flat or shallowly sloped area above the water level, along a 30-foot river channel that runs through the heart of the property.

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MKSK’s restoration project along the channel would slow floodwater along the Reedy and decrease the risk of flooding farther downstream in downtown, according to Meyer.

The project also calls for the preservation of the area’s significant trees and installation of riparian vegetation along the river’s banks that would serve as a natural filter for sediment and reduce erosion, improving water quality.

In addition to improving water quality conditions, the remediation project could also help improve habitats for fish and invertebrates in the river, as well as the birds and mammals that prey upon them, Meyer said.

The city’s remediation of the river channel will also create accessible viewsheds of natural bedrock features and integrate a pedestrian trail system into the expanded bank zone.

Meyer said the upcoming remediation project would occur in the early stages of the park’s construction in order to complete the permitting process and secure funding, which could stem from stormwater user fees, as well as state and federal grants. Cost estimates for the project are still being developed by the city.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded a $300,000 grant to the city to conduct environmental assessments within the park and surrounding area, according to a news release. Beginning in October, the grant will be available for three years.

White said the city could also potentially get millions of dollars in mitigation credits from the river work. Mitigation banking is a system of credits and debits devised to ensure that ecological loss, especially to wetlands and streams, is compensated for by the preservation and restoration of wetlands and streams in other areas.

Protecting the river

In order to preserve the river and other natural resources throughout the park’s 22 acres, the city has hired Maryland-based environmental consulting firm Biohabitats to oversee the conservation planning, ecological restoration, and design of the property.

Through the city’s framework, Biohabitats will determine what natural aspects should be preserved, restored, and accentuated on the Unity Park property. Biohabitats president Keith Bowers will be leading the work for the firm.

Bowers, who founded Biohabitats in 1984, has more than 30 years of experience leading teams of biologists, geologists, ecologists, arborists, mapping technicians, soil scientists, engineers, landscape architects, and planners on more than 1,000 projects.

Biohabitats’ conservation plans have been applied to wetlands, coastal habitats, prairies, woodlands, parks, campuses, residential and commercial developments, and endangered species habitats. The company works with government agencies, universities, and other institutions to plan for growth that helps the environment.

Recently, Biohabitats was tasked with leading the watershed management initiative for Baltimore at the city and county level. The 20-year project will improve water quality and aquatic habitat in the Chesapeake Bay to allow for a swimmable, fishable Inner Harbor.

Keith Bowers, founder and president of Maryland-based environmental consulting firm Biohabitats. Photo provided.

The company was also recently selected by the city of Atlanta to conduct an 18-month study that “will result in a comprehensive plan that highlights how to preserve Atlanta’s unique natural resources as our population grows and to establish a citywide ecological framework that supports healthy environments for people and wildlife.”

Bowers said his company would work with the city of Greenville and MKSK over the next year or so to not only identify Unity Park’s selection of natural resources and their impact on the region but to also design the riparian systems and floodplains as part of the stream restoration project.

“We will be looking at the master plans that have been developed over the years and advising the team on any types of improvements or enhancements that can be made to emphasize the ecological components of the site,” he said.

Biohabitats will also create an adaptive management plan to help the city prepare for and better respond to any issues, such as flooding, that could alter the Reedy and surrounding area, Bowers said. The company will also develop an operations and maintenance plan to help the city’s parks and recreation department manage the Unity Park property.

“Ecological systems aren’t static,” he said. “Storms and other natural events can have a big impact on the park, so the city has to have the patience and ability to adapt when it does change in order to preserve the property’s natural resources.”

Reclaiming the river

White said the upcoming restoration project is “the next step in reclaiming the Reedy.”

The idea of focusing on the river and creating parks and green spaces along it can be traced to a 1907 master plan created by a Boston landscape architecture firm for the Municipal League of Greenville, according to White.

The plan, which recommended the city restore the river and develop numerous parks along it, also suggested the city tear down the bridge over the Reedy to create an unobstructed view of the falls, according to White.

Falls Park in downtown Greenville. Photo by Will Crooks.

In 1998, White began to push to remove the Camperdown Bridge in order to create a signature public space below the falls. After years of back-and-forth talks to remove what many people saw as “a perfectly good bridge,” according to White, the city eventually tore down the bridge and constructed Falls Park, which opened in 2004. It has since become one of downtown Greenville’s most popular features, attracting thousands of visitors every year and hosting dozens of events, including the Duck Derby.

The city’s next step in reclaiming the Reedy came in November 2003, when it announced RiverPlace — the multimillion-dollar development on the west bank of the river that now includes residences, office buildings, and several hotels.

Unlike past projects, however, White said the upcoming effort to create a natural path for the Reedy in West Greenville could serve as a potential model for how the city and county tackle future restoration work throughout the river corridor.

A history of pollution

The Reedy River, which is a tributary of the Saluda River, is about 65 miles long, according to Friends of the Reedy River, and flows across Greenville and Laurens counties.

Despite years of cleanup, the Reedy continues to face numerous water quality threats and has been listed by the state as “impaired,” a designation that signals possible health risks, according to Maddi Phillips, community relations coordinator for the Greenville County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Greenville’s portion of the river, for instance, continues to be hampered by excessive amounts of E. coli bacteria, which flow downstream from a number of sources, including cattle farms, leaky sewer pipes, and pet waste, Phillips said.

The bacteria can not only impair waterways but also contaminate sources of drinking water, limit recreation opportunities, damage the habitat of aquatic animals and plants, and make people and pets ill if ingested, she added.

Litter sits scattered along the banks of the Reedy River. Photo by Will Crooks.

Another big threat to the Reedy River’s water quality is Greenville’s increasing amount of development, which causes runoff from paved surfaces and construction sites, according to Rob Hanley, a senior environmental scientist at TRC and board member of Friends of the Reedy River, a local conservation group. Dozens of pipes from parking lots and roads sometimes dump untreated stormwater in the river. Trash can also be swept downstream when the river overflows during rainstorms.

In parts of northern Greenville County, for example, increased stormwater 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. It also contains high nutrient levels that can cause harmful algae blooms, reduce dissolved oxygen in the water, and in turn kill fish.

The source of the nutrients is believed to be failing and malfunctioning septic tanks, which can leak onto the surface of the ground and wash into waterways, Hanley said.

Cleaning the river

Luckily, partners ranging from regional conservation groups to government agencies are collaborating to combat further contamination of the Reedy River.

The Reedy River Water Quality Group, which formed in 2015, includes a diverse collection of stakeholders, ranging from local governments to conservation groups, that are working together 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,” according to a mission statement.

For instance, the city of Greenville has partnered with Renewable Water Resources and Greenville County since 2015 to administer a cost-share assistance program within the Huff Creek Watershed, which feeds into the Reedy, to help home and business owners repair or replace their failing septic tanks.

The city and county also work alongside the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to compile water quality data from about 17 grab sample and continuous monitoring locations along the river.

The Reedy River begins in Travelers Rest and meanders through the City of Greenville to Lake Greenwood. Photo by Will Crooks.

The group is now working to identify best-management practices based on their effectiveness, cost, and overall benefit to the community. BMPs can include landscape activities, maintenance procedures, treatment requirements, and various other practices to prevent or reduce the pollution of waterways, according to Hanley.

For example, the city of Greenville is putting in place a series of stormwater management regulations, a move that will substantially reduce the amount of pollution that runs off of 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 together 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.

Seeing the bigger picture

While the city’s upcoming effort to restore the Reedy to a more natural path could provide a boost to the river’s water quality and native species, it won’t be the silver bullet that fixes other ecological problems throughout the corridor, according to Meyer.

“Flooding and water quality are watershed-scale issues. We can’t solve those issues with a single project like this,” Meyer said. “But the only way to address these bigger issues is to do it incrementally and start projects like this one that can become models for restorations further upstream or downtown, at which point you begin to see improvement.”

In addition to the restoration project, MKSK is working with the city to reduce impervious surfaces in the park by 50 percent to reduce stormwater runoff, which can further pollute the channel and wetlands with a toxic mix of nutrients, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons, according to Meyer.

Ohio-based urban design and landscape architecture firm MKSK has been hired by the city of Greenville to create a more natural course for the Reedy River by sculpting the banks of a 30-foot channel that runs through West Greenville. Officials say the project could provide a boost to the river’s water quality and alleviate flooding further downstream in downtown. Photo by Will Crooks.

Last year, for instance, the city relocated its public works building from the park property to 33 acres near Mauldin Road. The old facility will be demolished later this year and remain a passive green space until the park’s development.

The city also plans to work in conjunction with MKSK and Biohabitats to ensure the park’s design provides surrounding communities with “equal and quality access” to the park and its natural resources, Bowers said. “We want the park to be as inclusive as possible.”

Bowers said his firm, as well as the city and MKSK, will be working more closely with local conservation groups, including Upstate Forever and Friends of the Reedy River, in the future to receive feedback and recommendations on the park’s design. Both groups serve on the park’s advisory committee, which was organized several years ago.

There are so few opportunities to feature a natural wetland within an urban park, and by restoring this natural wetland, the city could create a rare oasis in the center of town,” said Heather Nix, clean water director at Upstate Forever. “We’re looking forward to working with the environmental consultants on the restoration plans.”

For more information, visit www.greenvillesc.gov.

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