Upstate portions of the Saluda River and its feeder streams continue to be hampered by excess bacteria that muddies the water and harms its quality even as recreation uses on the river have begun to take off in recent years.
On the coldest day of the year, trash lay scattered on the riverbank at an access point beneath Cooley Bridge Road at the Anderson and Greenville county line. Empty beer bottles, a Styrofoam meat wrapper and cardboard box – litter, but also proof that the river attracts visitors even in winter.
During warmer months, the river is awash with kayaks, water tubes and canoes in certain sections, and Upstate groups have developed plans to expand the number of recreation access points on the Saluda and turn it into a recreation hotspot.
But to do that, the river must be clean enough to promote recreation use, and now sections of the river and multiple tributaries are listed by the state as impaired for recreation use.
Never miss a local story.
To combat contamination of the Saluda, a group of Upstate agencies collaborated to develop a water-quality improvement plan for a mostly rural section of the Saluda River watershed that identifies major sources of contamination and outlines a strategy to make the river safe for recreation uses.
The plan itself isn’t the solution, though. Nearly half a million dollars are needed, ideally through state and federal grants, to put the plan into action, said Erika Hollis, clean air and water project manager with the conservation group Upstate Forever.
At stake is the economic boon that small towns like West Pelzer, Pelzer, Williamston and Belton that reside near polluted sections of the Saluda or its tributaries could see from increased recreational use.
Yet the solutions to keep varied sources of pollution from seeping into the river are varied and complicated.
And it all starts with cattle.
Fences for cattle
It’s a common sight, and why wouldn’t it be in the rural South? Farmers put their cows out to pasture and those cows find their way to the nearest stream to cool off and hydrate.
In recent years, though, cattle stamping through streams and doing their business have been identified as a key source of bacterial pollution, Hollis said.
Swimming or wading in or ingesting water with excess nutrients can cause stomach ailments, skin infections, ear, nose and throat infections, and, rarely, hepatitis A, meningitis or encephalitis, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Now agricultural best management practices instruct farmers to fence cattle out of rivers and provide them with alternate water sources, Hollis said.
Building more fences costs money and installing troughs for drinking water compounds the cost, so many farmers don’t see the incentive to change, Hollis said.
A portion of the estimated $485,000 needed to put the Saluda watershed plan in motion would be used to offer farmers a “package deal” to install fencing and water troughs while reinforcing soil near streams to lessen runoff, Hollis said.
A similar plan has been used in the Walnut Creek Watershed that feeds into Lake Greenwood, Hollis said. The plan begins with education — keeping cattle out of streams can improve cattle health by reducing hoof infections and providing cleaner drinking water, she said.
The watershed plan also identifies septic system failures, pet waste and wildlife waste as contributors to the impaired water, Hollis said.
Upstate Forever developed the watershed plan so it could qualify for Clean Water Act grants, which would be used to implement the plan, she said.
In more urban stream settings along the Saluda, funds would be used to help homeowners fix septic systems and educate pet owners to pick up waste, she said.
Upstate Forever chose to focus on four rural creeks that all converge with the upper sections of the Saluda River in Pickens, Greenville and Anderson counties.
Big Creek, Craven Creek, Grove Creek and Hurricane Creek comprise nearly 74,000 acres of the Upper Saluda Watershed.
Two of the streams — Big Creek and Grove Creek — are listed as impaired waterways on the state’s 2012 report. Hurricane Creek isn’t currently monitored, Hollis said, while Craven Creek previously has been listed as impaired but recently was removed from the impaired list, she said.
The state has classified the entire Saluda River Watershed as a priority area for water quality improvement. After sections of the Saluda watershed were listed as impaired in 2004, the state developed a cleanup plan called a total maximum daily load.
Since then, one station near State 81 at Craven Creek at its confluence with the Saluda has achieved lower bacteria levels and was removed from the 2012 impaired waterways list.
Big Creek and Grove Creek, totaling 23 miles of water, have become the focus, along with Hurricane Creek because of its similar location near agricultural land, according to the watershed plan.
Upstate Forever focused on the Saluda because it has been impaired for so long and because Anderson and Greenville counties wanted to encourage recreation on the river, Hollis said.
John Batson, Anderson County stormwater manager, said they partnered with Upstate Forever to develop the watershed plan because water quality improvement of the Saluda Watershed would help the county from a global scale, even though it’s separate from state mandates that have been placed on county stormwater systems.
“Anything that can be done to improve water quality is going to help us and our citizens,” Batson said.
A Blue Trail
Water rushed over the Pelzer Dam on a frigid day as tiny puddles created by spray from the mighty Saluda turned to ice.
A worker at Duke Energy’s small hydro-electric station below the dam pointed across the river to a steep earthen bank just below the dam. That’s the put-in spot kayakers use during warmer months, he said.
A plan presented last July by Anderson County Parks and Recreation would turn rudimentary access points into full-service docks or ramps at river’s edge. Many of the access points would be handicapped-accessible, just like Anderson County’s Dolly Cooper Park access, said Matt Shell, Anderson County Parks Department manager.
The plan would create six paddling sections along 48 miles of the Saluda between seven dams that dot the river from Saluda Lake Dam in Greenville County all the way south to Ware Shoals Dam.
Much of the plan is conceptual now, but Anderson is working with dam operators to alleviate safety concerns and come to agreements to build official portage routes around the existing dams, Shell said.
Anderson County would like to see improvements in Saluda River water quality before it can really encourage recreation use of the river, Shell said.
It’s important to improve the Saluda now before it faces steep hurdles to recover like Greenville faces with the Reedy River, he said.
“The reason that we have a vested interest in it for water quality is not just for recreation but it’s also certainly for the health of wildlife and the full circle of life that takes place in the river,” Shell said. “Without that water quality we would be advised or directed not to further recreation or develop a water trail on the Saluda.”
Anderson County has been approved for assistance from the National Parks Service to develop its blueway trail.
Momentum has built to create safe access points and river enthusiasts have clamored to the river in recent years, Shell said.
The recent thrust by river enthusiasts and Greenville and Anderson counties to improve access made the river’s water quality a priority for Upstate Forever, Hollis said.
Anderson County tests the viability of the river as an economic driver each spring when it hosts the Saluda River Rally and draws hundreds of paddlers from a five-state region, he said.
The paddle trail could turn into an economic engine for the Upstate, though Shell called it a long-term project.
With a state-of-the-art access point already established at Dolly Cooper Park, the county has caught a glimpse of what the Blue Trail could become, he said.
“We have a long haul but we also have a model that makes it very financially achievable,” he said.