A failing dam threatens to contaminate drinking water for thousands of people. Pollution in the Reedy River causes a shortage of recreational access points for Greenville County residents. And a raging wildfire births ecological wonders at Table Rock State Park just months after destroying thousands of acres.
The year 2017 has seen no shortage of environmental disasters and breakthroughs. In our annual Year in Review report, we’re presenting developments that hold profound implications for the region — and world — going forward. These are the Greenville Journal’s top environmental news stories of the year.
Lake Conestee is one step closer to causing one of the worst environmental disasters in the Upstate since the 1996 Colonial Pipeline spill, which dumped nearly 1 million gallons of diesel fuel into the Reedy River.
The lake, which is on the Reedy River near Mauldin, holds about 2.8 million tons of sediment that’s been polluted with heavy metals like arsenic, pesticides, and cancer-causing chemical compounds. The toxins are thought to have been discharged from the textile mills, coal plants, and dyeing operations that were once located along the Reedy River. The toxins eventually mixed with the river’s sediment and flowed downstream to Lake Conestee, where they now sit behind a 125-year-old stone masonry dam that’s quickly failing.
“Failure would be catastrophic,” said Dave Hargett, founder of the Conestee Foundation. Within 48 hours of the dam’s failure, it would release the lake’s toxic sediment into the Reedy River, where it would eventually float downstream to Boyd Pond in Laurens and Lake Greenwood, which provides drinking water for more than 40,000 Greenwood County residents. Now, the Conestee Foundation, the nonprofit that purchased the lake property in 2000, is trying to prevent the dam’s failure and has received $185,000 from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to identify a long-term solution.
In November 2016, the S.C. Forestry Commission announced that a small campfire had quickly grown into a raging wildfire on the side of Pinnacle Mountain in Pickens County. The fire grew larger and larger for several weeks, burning acreage and causing smoke to inundate the Upstate. The fire, which was contained a month later, burned more than 10,000 acres and cost $4.8 million. But it also had ecological benefits, according to Joe Lemeris, a resource management biologist for the state Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. “People forget that wildfire is natural. It’s nature’s way of clearing out the old undergrowth to make room for the new,” he said. “The fire is already providing countless ecological benefits for the mountain.”
For instance, the forest floor, once scorched and barren, is now covered in leaves that provide erosion control and nutrients. It also provides a prime research opportunity for Lemeris, who has partnered with researchers at Clemson University and other schools to establish photo-monitoring stations across Pinnacle Mountain and other areas within Table Rock State Park. The researchers plan to study footage from the cameras this spring to better understand how the fire benefited the mountain’s landscape.
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.
But many residents believe the river needs more access points outside the city. 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 cities of Greenville, Mauldin, Simpsonville, and Fountain Inn. Unfortunately, the river has to be clean enough for local governments to promote recreation and create public access points. 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. Luckily, partners ranging from regional conservation groups to local governments are collaborating to combat further contamination of the river.
About three-fourths of the world’s food crops depend on pollination, according to a report released by the United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. But the number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has declined from 5 million to 2.5 million since the 1940s because of various threats – invasive species, diseases, pesticides, and habitat destruction.
Luckily, Greenville residents are beginning to raise honeybees in their backyards to help boost the declining population. “When you think about all the colonies that are dying off, it’s hard to say whether or not I’m actually impacting the global population,” said Matt Putnam, who started keeping bees at his residence off Highland Drive in 2015. “I think education is a bigger component for me. I’m sort of an ambassador for the species.”
There are several benefits that beekeeping can provide to people and the environment. Beekeepers can collect up to $200 worth of honey from each hive they maintain. And keeping bees is good for the environment because it aids in the pollination of nearby fruits, vegetables, and plants. “Bees are sort of the new backyard chickens,” said Jennifer Tsuruda, a beekeeping specialist at Clemson University.
Over the past century, American zoos have played a crucial role in saving hundreds of species from extinction. While most of the work has stemmed from breeding, more and more zoos are funding conservation in the field or even starting their own conservation programs. The Greenville Zoo, for instance, has spent more than $300,000 on conservation over the past seven years.
In 2010, the zoo’s conservation committee launched the Quarters for Conservation program to meet accreditation standards by creating a funding source for local and global conservation efforts. For each admission purchase, visitors receive a 25-cent token that can be inserted into a kiosk at the zoo’s entrance to vote for one of five conservation programs, which include efforts to help the Fijian crested iguana, Sumatran orangutan, Chilean flamingo, Amur leopard, and Angolan Colobus monkey. The zoo has also since launched an annual grant program and lecture series to promote conservation. Together, these efforts will help to ensure the health and longevity of countless species across the globe.