Trash fouls water at historic park

Mounds of garbage are piling up in the water at historic Riverfront Park, one of Columbia's signature green spaces - and Sam McCuen wonders why.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, McCuen took his grandchildren to the panoramic park and was stunned to see a mass of beer cans, tires, plastic drink bottles, rotting logs and other refuse bobbing at the base of the dam that separates the Broad River and the old Columbia Canal.

The garbage stretched from bank to bank at the highly visible dam and lock on the park's north end. A green slime coated the water around the mat of trash and wood.

"It's hard to explain to your grandchildren why this is like this," said McCuen, a Lexington public relations company owner. "It's embarrassing. And it reflects on the culture of our state that we allow this to happen."

This week, a power company that maintains the canal and the lock said it would clean up the mess starting Nov. 17. But the work by SCE&G may not solve the problem.

Much of the refuse comes from Smith Branch, a small creek that runs through some of north Columbia's most densely developed property, city water quality specialist Karen Kustafik said. The branch empties into the Broad River about 100 yards north of the lock and dam, just above the canal.

Even once the trash is cleaned up, the next time a big rain occurs, more refuse could wash back down the creek to the dam, city officials say.

"Smith Branch is a poster child for urban water quality," Kustafik said. "Everything that washes into the storm drains is sadly apparent" in the creek.

The canal below the dam supplies drinking water to Columbia. Water quality tests show Columbia's drinking water is within levels considered safe by the federal government, but critics say the sight of rotting garbage above the canal gives Columbia a bad image.

It has been six months - maybe longer - since anyone cleaned out the waterborne trash. SCE&G could not say when its crews last conducted a major cleanup, but Riverfront Park rangers said they could not remember one since late winter or early spring. A look at the water this week revealed plants growing out of the garbage, indicating the refuse had been sitting in the water for some time.

Alan Mehrzad, the riverkeeper for the Broad, Congaree and lower Saluda rivers, said the trash pile is a blight that's difficult to ignore.

"You have one of the city's best parks right down here, but when people walk up and admire the beauty of the canal and river, they also see this big eyesore, this big pile of trash," he said.

Riverfront Park attracts thousands of visitors each year. Stretching from EdVenture children's museum at Gervais Street for three miles north, the city park has a walking trail, historic buildings and places to picnic. The park highlights both the Broad River and the canal that was built centuries ago to haul goods around Columbia's rocky shoals. The dam, which includes a lock and gates to control water levels in the canal, separates the head of the canal from the Broad River.

The garbage heap McCuen described was still visible this week above the dam and lock. In addition to hundreds of plastic bottles, the water was filled with fast food cups, old tires, detergent boxes, oil containers and medicine bottles. Six basketballs and a pair of tennis shoes lay in the water. A child's Mickey Mouse doll was perched on a rock, surrounded by floating trash. In one spot, brown foam was visible in the water.

Unfortunately, cleaning up the garbage above the canal is too dangerous for the average volunteer because the current above the lock and dam is so swift, said Mehrzad and Heidi Johnson, who heads Keep the Midlands Beautiful. Only expert paddlers could even attempt a cleanup, Johnson and Kustafik said.

That leaves maintenance largely to the city and SCE&G. Columbia owns Riverfront Park, but pays the power company $350,000 annually to provide maintenance on the canal, city public utilities director John Dooley said. The company still operates an occasionally used hydroelectric dam on the park's southern end.

Robert Yanity, a spokesman for the power company, said SCE&G's November cleanup includes other work that could provide some relief. The power company is repairing equipment to keep logs that float downriver from collecting at the lock and dam. Any logs and trash that might drift down the Broad River toward the canal would be blocked by the device, known as a "log boom," he said. Yanity said the boom would not block trash from Smith Branch.

Environmentalist Sparkle Clark, a regular at Riverfront Park and candidate for mayor, said she thinks SCE&G's efforts will help. She thinks part of the trash is coming down river, rather than from Smith Branch.

While Kustafik said she's sure Smith Branch is the main source of trash, removing the logs will make the cleanup easier for expert paddlers who would volunteer to pick up trash above the canal's dam and lock.

For a longer-term solution, city officials have discussed installing a "trash boom" where Smith Branch enters the Broad, to catch the garbage flotilla.

Either way, folks like William Bright say something should be done. Bright sometimes takes his 9-year-old niece to the park to fish in the Broad River. But he has begun to wonder if the water is safe.

"It probably is a demanding job" to clean up the canal garbage, Bright said. "But people fish in these waters. Who knows how contaminated it might be?"

Sam Cook echoed those thoughts.

"To me, it's like nobody cares," said Cook, who visits the park several times a week.

In addition to trash building up at the lock and dam on the park's north end, some has in the past escaped into the canal and floated to the southern end, Dooley said. The trash collects at the historic old hydroelectric plant on the park's south and can be unsightly at times, he said.

McCuen said he thinks Riverfront Park is one of the most impressive places in South Carolina. People can see water crashing over a diversion dam in the Broad River and relax by the placid waters of the canal or the river. There also is plenty of wildlife, including a bald eagle that lives nearby.

But people can also see garbage.

"This is the sort of thing that happens in Third World countries,' McCuen said.