Wildlife has returned to Miller's Pond inside Port Royal Plantation on Hilton Head Island. An alligator hangs out at the bank, and a fish jumps in the water.
"You didn't see that before," assistant town engineer Bryan McIlwee said. "You used to see birds walking across what was essentially a mud flat."
Work is wrapping up on a $1 million town project to dredge the tidal pond, which has become clogged with silt during the past 40 years, reducing wildlife habitat and hindering stormwater flow.
The pond serves as a retention basin and final filtering station for a large watershed that drains from Mathews Drive and William Hilton Parkway into Fish Haul Creek. The more the pond filled in, the less water it could retain and filter before it flowed into the creek, McIlwee said.
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"This will help improve the quality of the stormwater that's flowing into the creek by allowing the pond to get back to its (original) state," he said.
The town hired JND Thomas Co. of Riverdale, Calif., to pump out more than 16,500 cubic yards of mud and sand to reach a depth of three feet at low tide. Some areas of the pond have no water.
Once vacuumed out by a hydraulic dredge, the slurry is pumped about a half mile to a maintenance yard, where large machines filter the sand and mud from the water. The water is discharged into a ditch off Union Cemetery Road and channeled back into Fish Haul Creek. The sand and dirt have been tested and approved for use on golf courses or as topsoil, McIlwee said.
The project is being paid for with proceeds from the town's stormwater utility fee. That fee was raised from $83 a year to $109 in 2010, when the town began managing drainage systems inside the gated communities, including Port Royal Plantation.
Plantation general manager Dan Davis said the community has been looking forward to the project for some time.
"Aesthetically, the pond was not as pleasing as it used to be, and fishing had gone down," Davis said.
A local angler, however, says the project is damaging Fish Haul Creek. Native islander Perry White, who has fished in the creek for 30 years, said there was no trout to catch in January, two months after the project began.
White says the volume of water that re-enters Fish Haul after being pumped out along with sand and mud is "not natural" and questions whether it's destroying the marsh.
Town officials monitoring the project disagree, saying the project is improving water quality.
The project has been permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which requires the town to monitor water quality and prevent sediment from reaching the creek, town engineer Jeff Buckalew said.
"We sample returned water daily and have never exceeded allowable levels," Buckalew said. "We also have a floating curtain to knock down stirred-up sediments that could flow into the creek."
Town officials also say the volume of water released back into the creek is not enough to cause flooding or erosion.
Dredging the pond should be completed within two weeks, McIlwee said.
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