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July 17, 2009

Reedy River fish populations recover from spill, but problems still lurk

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologists report that Reedy River fish populations have recovered from the devastating 1996 Colonial Pipeline oil spill. However, stream habitat degradation and pollution resulting from poorly planned urban development now pose the greatest threat to Reedy River fish populations.
Colonial Pipeline Co. pleaded guilty to criminal charges in connection with a 1996 spill of almost one million gallons of diesel oil into the Reedy River near Fork Shoals. The spill killed all fishes in a 23-mile river segment downstream of the spill, all the way to Lake Greenwood.

Today, little evidence of the oil spill remains. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologists report that population recovery was largely achieved by late 2000. More than 33 species of fish are now found in the affected river segment, and their numbers are similar to those observed in unaffected segments. Fish re-colonized the spill area from upstream and from the smaller feeder creeks that drain into the river.

The Reedy River has a history of pollution, and has displayed a strong natural resiliency to events like the oil spill. Prior to the 1970s, municipal and industrial wastes were routinely dumped into the Reedy. Local residents may recall stories of the river running a different color each day of the week—depending on which color dyes the textile finishing plants used.

Today, we have laws that ban these types of dumping practices. Biologists recognize that Reedy River fishes have survived a legacy of pollution, including the 1996 oil spill. The Reedy River is resilient, but one might ask…is there a tipping point?

DNR biologists are answering that very question by studying both the Reedy River and the river's smaller feeder creeks, or tributaries. This type of watershed study gives insight into the health and strength of the Reedy River system as a whole. The small streams and river are inextricably linked as a single system, bound by their common water course.

DNR's research indicates that Reedy River feeder creeks residing in more urban and suburban settings, such as those in and around Greenville, are in bad shape. Cathy Marion, DNR fisheries biologist, said: "We don't see certain fish species in these creeks near Greenville -when we know they should be there."

"Major pollution events like the 1996 oil spill are obviously devastating to fish assemblages," said Kevin Kubach, DNR fisheries biologist, "but assemblages can recover from these short-term localized impacts, and we have research that proves this."

"Poorly planned urban development and expansion can cause destructive in-stream habitat changes over time," Marion said. "This type of constant degradation of streams may prove to be much worse than an oil spill in the long run.

"We are no longer dumping our concentrated wastes into the Reedy," she said, "but we are now degrading the system in less obvious ways. Land development associated with urban and sub-urban growth can really alter our streams and rivers, degrading both habitat and water quality. The degradation occurs when natural forest cover is extensively replaced by pavement, rooftops, and other impervious surfaces."

"When the stream and river environment becomes damaged, we lose fish species that can't take the degraded conditions," Kubach said. "The loss is irreversible. We lose out on biodiversity, which is otherwise remarkably high here in southeastern rivers."

A recent study by Clemson University's Strom Thurmond Institute predicted that if our current land use practices and policies continue, the amount of developed land in the upstate will triple by the year 2030, and the population of eight upstate counties will increase by 30 percent. An increase in urbanization of this magnitude could prove disastrous to Reedy River fish populations.

However, it is possible to lessen the potential impact of this type of population growth. The answers, in part, lie in smart and efficient land development. Currently, much of the land in and around Greenville is developed inefficiently, where quantity is more important than quality, and more land is cleared than actually needed. Strom Thurmond Institute researchers report that quality land development could save nearly 755,000 acres—nearly 50 percent—by 2030.

"It is possible to accommodate both population growth and business development without consuming so much land that we are literally destroying the natural world around us," Marion said. "In addition, smart growth would save money on both city services and infrastructure."

The Reedy has shown that it is resilient, by surviving the 1996 oil spill, and many previous impacts. The question now is will the Reedy survive through unprecedented urban and sub-urban growth? Or will it cross the tipping point?

South Carolina's natural resources are essential for economic development and contribute nearly $30 billion and 230,000 jobs to the state's economy. Find out why Life's Better Outdoors.

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