Bluffton has completed the first project in its 2-year-old "action plan" to restore May River water quality in the river's upper reaches, and initial reports are that it's working as intended.
The town built a stormwater retention pond on six acres in the New Riverside area. Stormwater runoff is diverted from a nearby ditch into the pond, where the water is stored and treated before it is released to the river.
Palmetto Bluff developer Crescent Resources donated the six acres as part of a deal that also transferred about 1,300 homes away from the headwaters watershed. Town officials said building the homes there would have created about 146 acres of hard surfaces in the environmentally sensitive area.
That type of transfer is an important component of the town's plan to restore the river and should be replicated again and again.
The town cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that led to the water quality degradation in the first place -- building too much in the wrong places. Fred Holland, retired director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hollings Marine Laboratory, warned when the action plan was being developed in 2011 that new stormwater-retention ponds and retrofitting existing systems were not going to be enough to preserve the river. When the plan was adopted, more than 19,000 housing units had been permitted but not yet built in the May River watershed.
"When these units are constructed," Holland wrote, "less than 1 percent of the Stoney Creek and Rose Dhu Creek sub-watersheds will be forested, and impervious cover levels will have increased to 14 percent for the Stoney Creek sub-watershed and 20 percent for the Rose Dhu Creek sub-watershed." Waterways are impaired when hard surfaces reach 10 percent.
A more effective, quicker and probably cheaper way to reduce pollutants in the river, Holland said, is to reduce new construction in the most vulnerable areas of the May River watershed. He showed that reducing hard surfaces -- rooftops, driveways, roads and parking lots -- in certain areas that feed into the Rose Dhu Creek and Stoney Creek sub-watersheds is the soundest way to protect the May River. Those hard surfaces are directly linked to the increase in pollutants and the increased volume of stormwater pouring into the river.
This is not to say that Bluffton shouldn't move ahead with other projects. This has to be an "all-of-the-above" approach.
The action plan also calls for retrofitting ponds in Hampton Lake and Hampton Hall to hold more water and release it more slowly, reducing the amount of pollutants water leaving the ponds picks up before reaching the river. It also will incorporate reusing collected stormwater for irrigation. Town officials have said those projects should improve how runoff is handled for about 5,200 acres of the river's watershed.
A third project would restore wetlands near Stoney Creek. It calls for filling ditches that have moved the water through the wetlands so quickly that their natural cleaning capabilities have been "short-circuited." The restoration would force runoff out of the ditches and allow it to flow across a much larger area, slowing it, increasing infiltration and evaporation and allowing pollutants to drop or be filtered out, according to the town's engineers. The project is expected to affect about 4,900 acres of the watershed.
With a Town Council election in November, we'll probably hear a lot about candidates' commitment to protecting the May River. Bluffton voters should ask them whether they're willing to reduce the amount of development allowed in the river's watershed. That's what will help make sure all of the other effort isn't wasted.