Roy Tryon often fishes on the lower Saluda River, casting for trout and enjoying the peaceful beauty of the Midlands’ most unusual waterway.
At times, however, Tryon catches the odor of sewage on the breeze as he wades in the Saluda. It’s an irritant that makes him wonder when sewage treatment plants will stop releasing wastewater into the river.
“I don’t think this is just a concern to fishermen, but to everybody who lives in the area,” said Tryon, pulling his small boat from the river at Saluda Shoals Park.
But the flow of sewage to the Saluda could be about to end at two major problem spots.
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Last week, the Carolina Water Service utility said it would stop releasing wastewater from a troubled sewage plant near Interstate 20. That plant has a history of polluting the Saluda River with poorly treated wastewater, records show.
This week, the private water and sewer company also said it is looking to close a second major sewage pipe that bubbles wastewater into the river. That discharge, from its Friarsgate plant, also has fouled the river in recent years at Saluda Shoals Park, which annually attracts thousands of swimmers, boaters and fishermen, including Tryon.
Carolina Water Service has met with the city of Columbia and Richland County about diverting wastewater from the Friarsgate plant to regional wastewater plants operated by the local governments, officials with the private utility and the city say.
“They now have the capacity to take the discharge, so when we found that out, we immediately got with both to set up meetings,” Carolina Water spokesman Robert Yanity said. “It’s really early in the process, but we’ve long indicated our desire to eliminate our discharges. This is a positive step.”
Joey Jaco, Columbia’s utilities director, confirmed that discussions have been held about the city or the county taking wastewater from the Friarsgate plant. Jaco said Columbia has the capacity at its metro treatment plant.
“I see progress more than I’ve seen in previous years,” Jaco said.
Richland County administrator Gerald Seals said the county also has capacity at its Broad River plant. But, like Jaco, he emphasized that discussions about tying in Carolina Water or other Saluda River plants were preliminary. Seals said the county was approached by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control about connecting some of the plants.
Cold water, trout and Spanish moss
After more than 25 years of efforts to rid the Saluda of all sewage discharges, plugging both sewage pipes would be significant.
With whitewater rapids and Spanish moss, the lower Saluda River includes characteristics of both South Carolina’s mountains and its Lowcountry.
The river, fed by the frigid waters of Lake Murray, has an active trout fishery that attracts anglers from across the South. Most other streams in central South Carolina are either lazy blackwater rivers or muddy rivers – neither of which have trout or the cold water that they need.
But sewage spills and treatment plant hiccups have continued to send tainted wastewater into the river.
In the summer of 2016, a malfunction at Carolina Water’s Friarsgate plant prompted warnings against swimming or kayaking on the river near Saluda Shoals after the facility released poorly treated wastewater. Department of Health and Environmental Control warnings lasted for parts of two weeks, including the Fourth of July holiday.
Since that time, outfitters have sued Carolina Water Service, arguing the utility’s discharges cost them business that summer. They also say the continuing stigma of sewage discharges remains a concern to their customers.
In 1990, a river task force recommended that all discharges from residential wastewater plants be eliminated from the river. But six wastewater plants remain. A handful of industries also discharge treated waste into the river.
The talks with Carolina Water about shutting off the Saluda Shoals sewage discharge pipe follow last week’s announcement the utility would turn over its I-20 wastewater system to the town of Lexington. The town will divert sewage from the I-20 treatment plant to a regional wastewater system next month, town officials said. Barring some last-minute problem, the I-20 plant’s sewage discharge pipe will be shut down by Valentine’s Day, according to the town.
If the I-20 plant closes and discharges from the Friarsgate plant go to Columbia or Richland County, that would leave only four plants along the river. One is a small Carolina Water Service plant near Lexington.
The other three also are small plants operated by Pacolet Milliken’s Ni America and Synergy Inc., formerly DSI Utilities.
Jaco said those plants could be more difficult to tie into regional wastewater systems than Carolina Water’s Friarsgate plant. A Pacolet Milliken spokeswoman said she was unaware of any such discussions with regional wastewater systems. An official with Synergy was not available.
‘It’s a real treasure’
During one recent five-year stretch, wastewater plants on the Saluda River violated federal pollution standards 65 times, nearly half of those violations due to three Carolina Water Service plants, according to federal data analyzed by the Congaree Riverkeeper.
Eliminating the sources of sewage pollution on the river is long overdue, say state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, and conservationists.
In recent years, the Congaree Riverkeeper has been pushing to stop the discharges, successfully suing Carolina Water Service in federal court.
Setzler said removing all Carolina Water Service discharges from the river is particularly important.
“They’ve dumped in the river so long, they need to get it out,” Setzler said of Carolina Water Service. “The river is critical to economic development, from a recreational standpoint and everything else.”
Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said more work is needed, but he is encouraged that talks are underway to also end the Friarsgate plant discharges.
“This is something we’ve wanted to hear for a long time,” Stangler said.
Trout fisherman Tryon said he hopes the recent developments make for a cleaner Saluda.
“It’s a real treasure,” he said. “I can get here within 15 to 20 minutes of my house to a trout fishery.”