As other parts of the country struggle to find adequate supplies of clean water, Greenville has abundant, and comparatively clean, water resources. The city’s tap water routinely meets state and federal regulations, and it has even been named the “best tasting” water in the country and South Carolina. 

So how does the city have such high-quality drinking water? It begins with safeguarding the 30,000 acres of forested watersheds that surround the North Saluda and Table Rock reservoirs, which have provided millions of gallons of drinking water to Greenville residents since the 1930s.

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Greenville County, these forest systems play an important, yet often overlooked, role in protecting the public water supply, according to Henry Poole, watershed manager for Greenville Water, the city’s water utility.

Poole said the forest floor is capable of absorbing and removing nutrients and contaminants from stormwater as it travels to nearby streams. Leaves and root systems can also help prevent erosion and flooding from clogging the reservoirs with sediment. 

Despite this, the Table Rock and North Saluda watersheds remain vulnerable to a wide range of environmental threats, according to Poole. That includes global warming, which is expected to increase the likelihood of wildfires and pest insects in forests across the southern United States.

In order to protect the watersheds, the Commission of Public Works, which governs Greenville Water, granted a conservation easement to The Nature Conservancy in the 1990s to ensure that the properties remain undeveloped. Greenville Water also contracted with the environmental nonprofit in 2012 to develop a natural resource management plan for the Table Rock and North Saluda watersheds.

Poole, who earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry from Clemson University, was hired in 2014 to enact that plan. Now he’s developing a number of conservation measures within the watersheds, including a long-term project to monitor salamander populations. 

All about amphibians 

Salamanders are often referred to as “biological indicators” because they are sensitive to changes in their environment, according to Poole. As with other amphibians, salamanders have a slimy, semipermeable skin that allows water to pass in and out of their bodies. Some species even lack lungs, breathing through their skin and the linings of their mouths.

While an abundant salamander population indicates a healthy watershed, the decrease or disappearance of a salamander population is often the first sign of ecological problems, such as global warming, ozone-layer destruction, biodiversity loss, or water pollution.

“A healthy salamander population indicates that our watershed forests continue to be healthy and protective of our drinking-water quality,” said Poole. “Having a better understanding of the salamander population can help us find ways to continue improving the resiliency of our watershed and ensure high water quality for future generations.”

Poole said streams, fallen logs, and rock outcrops throughout the Table Rock and North Saluda watersheds provide habitat for a wide range of salamander species, including the green salamander, which is listed as a critically imperiled species in South Carolina due to habitat loss and alteration, and the spotted salamander, which was named the official state amphibian in 1999. 

However, because of their small size and seasonality, salamanders can be difficult to monitor. That’s why Poole is creating and installing cover boards throughout the watersheds. Cover boards are 1-inch slices of wood that are placed on the ground to provide a moist refuge for salamanders.

“We’re just trying to mimic something that’s already out there,” Poole said.

Spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) live in hollow, underground spaces and rarely emerge for more than a few moments at a time. Credit: Greg Schechter/Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Poole and his staff placed several boards throughout the Table Rock Watershed in 2016, but the Pinnacle Mountain fire destroyed them shortly after. Now they’re working to install two grids of 64 boards across the approximately 9,000-acre property in hopes of monitoring salamanders from March to May.

“We’ll check the boards at least once a month,” Poole said. “We don’t want to accidentally scare them away.” 

Once a salamander is captured, Poole and his staff will place the creature in a moistened Ziploc bag to protect its skin, identify the species, measure it with a small ruler, clip a toe to avoid double-counting, and then return it to the board where it was found.

Poole said the monitoring project will not only help assess the health of the watershed but also provide vital habitat for salamanders, a species that provides numerous ecological benefits yet continues to decline around the world. 

Salamanders help control pests by eating insects like mosquitoes and serve as prey for larger animals. Some scientists even claim that salamanders, thanks to their appetite for leaf-chewing insects, can help fight climate change. Unfortunately, of the 190 known species of salamanders in North America, more than 40 percent of them are considered to be at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, pollution, disease, and other factors. 

Poole said he hopes to continue the monitoring project over the next 10 to 15 years and to eventually install cover boards throughout the North Saluda Watershed. 

A pig problem 

Meanwhile, Poole and his staff are ramping up their efforts to hunt and trap feral hogs, an invasive species renowned for its ability to wreak ecological havoc on watersheds and other forested areas throughout the region. 

Because feral hogs lack sweat glands, they instinctively wallow in mud and water to maintain a healthy body temperature. They also use their snouts to “root” or dig in search of food, according to Poole. Both of these behaviors damage riparian areas and increase sedimentation along stream banks.

Poole said feral hogs also defecate in and around the water, increasing levels of bacteria and nutrients that may eventually flow into the reservoirs. 

According to a recent Clemson University study, feral hogs cause $115 million per year of ecological damage in South Carolina — that’s $44 million in damage to crops, livestock, and timber, and roughly $71 million in noncrop losses from damage to streams, ponds, wetlands, landscaping, vehicles, fire lanes, unpaved roads, and wildlife food plots.

Wildlife officials estimate that 130,000 to 140,000 feral hogs live in South Carolina, an increase of around 30 percent over the past decade.

Feral hogs cause significant ecological and economic damage in South Carolina. Photo by Neil Burton/iStock.

Charles Ruth, a wildlife biologist and big-game program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said feral hogs have been present in the Palmetto State since the Colonial period. 

European settlers first brought domesticated pigs to the Americas in the 1500s, but some eventually wandered off and thrived in the wild, according to Ruth. In 1890, sports hunters released wild European boars across the country. Those boars mated with the wild pigs, which led to the type of species now seen around the Carolinas. In the mid-1900s, people across the country started stocking feral hogs and hunting them as big game animals.

The feral hog population expanded from the coastal region of South Carolina to the Piedmont region in the 1990s when people started transporting and releasing hogs for hunting, according to Ruth. Now feral hogs are present in all 46 counties, spreading to new areas as people continue to catch, transport, and release them for hunting.

Poole said the exact number of feral hogs remains unknown in the watersheds, but that he and other Greenville Water employees typically install game cameras and traps in areas where “rooting” behavior has been observed. They’ve killed 17 hogs so far this year. 

“Forests have a lot of products. Our product is the water. And the best way to protect the water is by managing the land,” said Poole. “That’s our first and foremost goal with these programs.”

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