Remember playing in the woods and coming across a little pool? It seemed almost magical, because they came and went. The cool, flower-child thing to do if you found a stream or any other small body of water was to wash your hair in it, and never mind how cold it was. Where did those bodies come from, especially if they weren’t anywhere near a river or lake? Melted snow? That would have been a logical conclusion in the spring, but it was much more likely to be stormwater, and flower children wouldn’t have thought of it as damaging.
But it can be, and Aiken, S.C., has been working diligently to deal with it before Hitchcock Woods is damaged any further. Stormwater runoff had caused serious erosion: woods, trees and land destroyed; precious ground washing away after every rain; and sedimentation traveling downstream, killing bottomland hardwood trees and destroying wetlands. This led to multiple problems, such as environmental damage, pollution and safety issues.
George Grinton, a colorful character everyone knows in Aiken — you can’t forget someone who plays the bagpipes — has worked in city government for many years as the engineering and utilities director, retired in 2017 and then came back to get involved again.
“I reconfigured the Downtown Alley to make it more user friendly. This will be my last project.” And a huge project it is.
He explained, “Aiken has been wrestling with this issue since the 1950s. See, in 1833, the first train passed through Aiken; at the time, the Charleston-Hamburg Track was 136 miles long, the longest in the world then. River locomotives were not powerful enough to pull up and down significant inclines, and they stalled, at first. The solution was an engine house with a boiler, and cantilevering the trains from the lower section with rope: one section being raised and the other lowered, you know, locomotives at the bottom and the top. Aiken occurred because it was a sort of bottleneck!”
In 1835, Aiken was incorporated and became a winter colony for the wealthy Northeastern families because of the climate. They brought horses, as well as every other comfort imaginable.
“Hitchcock Woods was so named because Tommy Hitchcock owned a significant section. The foundation is for pedestrian and equestrian use; it’s a voluntary organization that survives on donations earmarked for preserving the woods,” Grinton said.
Hitchcock Woods is a beautiful, peaceful place, and part of the plan was always to restore the ravaged beauty in every way possible.
In the early days, the system in place worked pretty well, but as population increased, there began to be a problem with the amount of water needing to be processed.
“In the 1950s, the Aiken area was selected by the Department of Energy for its ‘bomb plant.’ This was the Cold War years, and it was all about hydrogen bombs and plutonium. Aiken doubled in size during the ’50s and ’60s, and runoff became much more significant. In the ’70s and ’80s, Aiken doubled in size again. At that time, the diameter of the pipe at the Savannah River site was 30 inches. Today it is 10 feet in diameter,” Grinton explained.
This much growth might be good for business, but it was definitely bad for the water running through Hitchcock Woods. Grinton added attempts were made to harden the river walls, and workers extended the pipes further down, but it just increased the damage. And pollution was an ever-growing problem as well.
In 2015 or 2016, a task force hired an engineering firm, McCormick Taylor, to prepare a plan that would help the city overcome stormwater challenges with a workable solution. The problem was clearly too big to be handled by one department. Clemson University also weighed in, collecting and verifying samples.
“To define the problem, we looked at all the studies, from the 1980s through the 2000s. We wanted to be able to release the stormwater into the Sand River at the 10-year predevelopment rate, but it would not transmit downstream because of the water flow. Then, we found that over 20 BMPs (Best Management Practices) could be built around the city,” Grinton said.
Stormwater BMPs are a disparate collection of management solutions for controlling the quantity and quality of water that runs off, during wet or dry weather. It was determined, Grinton continued, that “58.22 acres of detention would create a slower flow release.” Detention, he explained, functions in settling suspended sediments and other solids typically found in stormwater runoff.
The Hitchcock Woods Foundation, founded in the 1930s, “was formed to preserve, protect and maintain the remaining acres of the original tract for the benefit of the general public and future generations” as stated on the nonprofit’s website. This enormous project was essential to their mission statement.
Grinton said, “The Hitchcock Woods Foundation was willing to donate some land, too. The 2017 cost was projected at $22 million. That’s a huge amount, and it’s more now because of the shortages everyone is experiencing,” an all-too-common problem everywhere.
Further studies of all the collection points revealed that “the best location was the discharge point near the Sand River in the city of Aiken, and Hitchcock found that each owned about 50%,” Grinton explained. “So McCormick Taylor was able to work it, and only half the amount needed was made available.”
Enter the Opti Company, incorporating real-time data and weather forecasts, helping to control the timing and rate of stormwater flowing through upstream storage facilities.
Grinton added, “The Opti Company bases the look on 72 hours of forecast and calculates the amount of water that will come into the river. It will come from the area north and east of the projects. Then they look at the volume available in the detention vaults. It gets intercepted and BMP6 releases into 6A, and then into Sand River, but it has to flow at the slower rate.”
Anyone familiar with home septic systems and drain fields will understand what Grinton said next. “The control system determines if there’s enough storage space. If there is, nothing needs to happen. Water will work into the ground on beds of gravel. If the rain predicted is enough to need releasing water, it does so at the slower rate. In the event of a major storm, such as a hurricane, retention ponds can be lowered in advance so they can hold more water. The existing stormwater pipes let the water flow in and the excess flows past. This brings the opportunity to have some go into the river, and some into the ground.”
Grinton said that the city has been retrofitting where it can, but now it is also building new. “Three magic words: detain, infiltrate, reroute. I see this as the use of other ponds in the city. We have another regional pond, and eventually the water will exceed its capacity. But when we retrofit, we can double or even triple the volume it can contain, and it’s low cost because no more land is needed.”
McCormick Taylor is monitoring for about a year to see how well the project is working on average. But it all seems to have fallen into place: The city of Aiken has received the Municipal Association of South Carolina 2022 Achievement Award in the public works category for the innovative project. This is not the first time Aiken has received an award; from 1990 through 2011, the city has received 19 MASC Achievement Awards in various categories. And Grinton said of the contractors the city used, “Thalle Construction Company was very professional, organized, on time and on budget. I was very impressed and pleased to have worked with such a good company, and I would use them again for any project.”
How was such a massive project funded? According to the city of Aiken website, grant funds are available to help share the cost of conservation practices. These practices will significantly reduce the amount of sediment, nutrients and bacteria entering the creeks and tributaries, ensuring cleaner water and healthier ecosystems. This will also provide cleaner source water for the city of Aiken’s drinking water treatment plant. The 319 grant will provide up to 75% cost share assistance.
Grinton said there’s a spoonful of sugar that helps sweeten the deal. Kiosks were planned during the landscaping discussion. Officials hope to be able to link them to smartphones.
“There will be explanations of the stormwater project, but there will also be pollinator gardens, the history of Hitchcock Woods, the history of the flora and fauna. The Gateway to Hitchcock Woods is a true hidden gem, and the largest urban forest that isn’t connected to anything else — it’s bigger than New York City’s Central Park (which is 843 acres), 2,200 acres!”
Grinton added there are more than 500 rare and endangered species. “Longleaf pine, which many haven’t heard of, though they recognize the loblolly pine, was native to the southeast part of the country, but now there is less than 5% of the original left.” It was largely decimated due to tar and turpentine production, and restoring it has been a big priority for conservation officials. “And it provides habitat to over 25 endangered species.”
The red-cockaded woodpecker was declared endangered in the 1970s, and in 2017, 10 birds were brought to the Hitchcock Woods and released in five separate areas suitable for nesting and foraging. Now, Grinton said, “There are 25 breeding pairs.”
There are plans for field trips and other educational offerings for school kids, and those kids may never look at the river the same way. And maybe somewhere someone will wash their hair in a clean, well-managed pool of water again.