We start with the river and a ditch.
In the early days, when Augusta was a country town, the Savannah River provided Augusta with the water it needed to live and washed downstream the sewage and other wastes Augustans needed to get rid of. But the city grew and grew, and by the 1880s, Augusta was gagging on the waste it produced each day.
Its solution was to dig a ditch from downtown south into the Phinizy Swamp where the ditch flowed into Butler Creek. For the better part of a century, raw sewage flowed down the ditch into the creek, which then carried it into the nearby river—out of sight and smell of Augusta.
And that was more or less the story until 1968 when Augusta, in anticipation of the Clean Water Act, built its wastewater treatment plant. The Messerly plant, at the edge of Phinizy Swamp on one side and Bush Field airport on the other, still released its treated waste into Butler Creek just as the ditch it replaced had. And the growth in population and industry and their resulting wastes quickly overwhelmed it. Sewage continued to flow into the creek, the swamp and the river. The city was ordered by the EPA to upgrade the plant in 1993. By then the city was being fined almost daily for its discharges into the river. “The EPA was about to hit us in the head with a two-by-four that would cost us about $30 million-plus,” Jorge Jimenez of Augusta’s ZEL Engineers remembers.
By then a radical new idea had emerged. Perhaps the solution to the problem of waste was to be found not in building more high-tech treatment facilities but in using the complex technology of nature itself. Jimenez took movies of a constructed wetland he visited in Orlando during a family vacation to Disney World and showed them to Augusta utilities people when he got back. The city explored the idea with Donald Hammer of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a consultant. Wetlands and the grasses that grow in them clean impurities out of water and here surrounding the plant were the 7,000 acres of the Phinizy Swamp.
The state gave Augusta the go-ahead to build a pilot program. A young environmental restoration expert, Dr. Gene Eidson, helped oversee the project. The idea was to take a part of the property that had been farmed for generations and to turn that into a constructed wetland. Gravity would carry treated waste from the plant into wetland ponds where natural process would purify the water before it flowed into Butler Creek. This was cutting-edge thinking and constructing the wetlands for this experimental system would cost $11 million. But Eidson got the go-ahead. And the pilot program did so well, it looked like the wetland project would pay for itself in 10 years. The state gave its okay.
There was a rub. Building the wetlands would disrupt 30 acres of natural wetlands and the Clean Water Act required mitigation of those acres. That meant creating new wetlands or restoring old ones. But Eidson had a different idea: Suppose this whole project had an educational component. Could education count as mitigation? For the first time ever in the Southeast, the Corps of Engineers said yes.
And thus what had been merely an innovative experiment in treating waste became the 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park and Center for Water Sciences. It turns 20 this year.
The city put up the seed money for the educational piece, said Augusta Utilities assistant director Allen Saxon. But before the park could happen, Eidson had to raise money to sustain it by selling the community on the idea.
Augustans proved to be a harder sell than the Corps of Engineers had been. “We had proposed to the Corps a vision of what could be,” Eidson says. “It was a far stretch to turn that vision into reality.”
Until he could find a partner to run and fund the park, Eidson did it himself. “I always thought the swamp was a beautiful place,” he says. Exploring streams and swamps in the Horse Creek Valley of South Carolina where he grew up had set him on his life’s path. “This was an effort to give back. I knew I could do it. I’d bring people out here to find someone to support this thing.”
For two years Eidson ran the fledgling park himself, making the rounds of civic clubs, garden clubs, local industries and businesses, making presentations, trying to find anyone to partner with him. “I took scores of people out on the bridge and many of them just laughed and walked away. The creek had raw sewage in it. You had to wear a handkerchief over your nose. It was choked with tires, stoves, refrigerators. The swamp had every insult thrown at it. It was so degraded—a trash dump, a wastewater pit.” The stench drove potential partners away.
After two fruitless years, Eidson was ready to let go of the whole idea. “I did what I could do and could do no more. This was what the dream had been, but Augusta was apathetic to it. I had one last presentation to make, then I was going to give it up.”
That last presentation was to the Sand Hills Garden Club. There was no apathy here. The 30 members were galvanized by the dream, appalled that it might die. They said “We need this,” took on Phinizy as a project and put up about $43,000. They also pulled on waders, climbed into the creek and hauled the tires out. “If not for them,” Eidson says, “the park would not have succeeded.”
With all the discarded junk taken out of the stream, the creek eventually came back to life. “With the natural flow restored, nature revived itself. What you see today is just miraculous.” What had been a dead zone after a century of dumping now rings with the calls of owls and songbirds, while herons, egrets and storks stand motionless on their stick legs watching for prey, ducks paddle, grasses and flowers grow along the banks, and otters, beaver and muskrats swim in the clean water.
The parking lot on any given weekday holds school buses bringing students for field trips from Richmond and Columbia counties, vans from four partnering universities and from as far away as Columbia, Greenwood and Atlanta. Since the park’s beginning, 70,000 students have participated in educational programs here.
And the general public comes all the time, walking the boardwalks and quiet paths through the cyprus trees hung with Spanish moss, through woods full of oak and pine, cottonwood and hickory, to escape the throb of the city just outside this oasis. Dozens of educational and recreational programs attract individuals and families: classes in bird watching, photography, painting, stream exploration. There are full moon walks, Swamp Saturday hikes, children’s hikes with storytime, Swamp Bike Saturdays, guided group tours and family camping. Adults can take a 10-Thursday course to earn certification as Georgia Master Naturalists. This past April’s Earth Day celebration drew more than 3,000 people. But even with so many visitors, miles of trails stretched virtually empty and silent except for the calls of the birds and the riffling of the wind in the high grasses.
However, the Nature Park is only the most visible piece of Phinizy’s mission. Out in the field and back in the lab, a team of researchers works in Phinizy’s Center for Water Sciences. Just as the swamp flows to the creek and the creek to the river, so does the organization’s research mission.
“There’s nothing more important than water,” says Dr. Oscar Flite, Phinizy’s CEO and senior scientist. Water makes up two-thirds of the planet and about 60 percent of the human body. “You can only live without water for three days.” So Flite and his staff of seven full-time researchers and eight university interns study the water of the Savannah River from the Strom Thurmond Dam down to Savannah Harbor. From 2006 to 2008 they conducted the Savannah River at Risk project. They placed 13 sensors in the river spaced at intervals for almost 200 miles. The sensors monitored the water every 15 minutes. The huge amounts of data amassed over two years showed Phinizy’s researchers what happens to the river as it travels downstream summer and winter, in dry spells and downpours, at the mouths of tributaries such as Butler Creek and Horse Creek, near Augusta and far from it. υ
Today those sensors still send information in real time to the lab at Phinizy. “How does waste from Augusta affect dissolved oxygen in Savannah Harbor? We’re trying to understand all that.” Flite said. “In 2011 we drifted down the river in a floating laboratory. It took us five days as the river flows. What we found out is very important to the impact Augusta’s wastewater has downstream. The river processes the water a lot faster than people thought. Nature is going to potentially heal itself once it gets the opportunity.”
Now the Water Sciences Center researchers have expanded their study, placing sensors in the Ogeechee River to the west and the Edisto River to the east. Comparing these three contiguous river systems will answer many more questions about our watershed.
Closer to home, Phinizy’s scientists have turned their attention to the Richmond County creeks that feed into the Savannah. “Now we’re moving up, going to the tributaries. That’s where the impacts on the river begin, starting in your backyard,” Flite explains. Richmond County’s controversial stormwater fee helps pay for this research. Partnering with Augusta’s engineering department and an Augusta University professor and intern, they have designed a sensor that measures rainfall and water level in streams. Eventually there will be 30 sensors around the county. “Stormwater starts with rainfall and that impacts creek levels and water quality,” Flite explains. Residues from lawns, lots, roofs, streets, parking lots pour with the water into the creeks and down to the river.
Attention to Augusta’s neglected creeks began in 2003 when Phinizy enlisted local student volunteers as “Creek Freaks” to monitor Butler Creek. Today researchers from the lab are walking every inch of every creek in Richmond County, noting stormwater infrastructure, dams created by beavers or debris, observing the shape of the banks, the stream bed, the water level and recording data every 1,000 feet.
“I’d love to take people into the creeks to show them why the stormwater fee is important,” Flite says.
Across the river, Phinizy’s expertise in constructing wetlands was put to good use in the popular Brickyard Pond Park at Hammonds Ferry in North Augusta. Phinizy designed the area to protect the river by holding stormwater and at the same time creating habitat to attract wildlife in a beautiful park that enhances the community.
Other Phinizy researchers partner with Richmond County and the state health department to study mosquitoes. They trap them by the thousands at 14 sites around the county. Researcher Chalisa Fabillar drove me out to collect one of the traps. She says about 24 mosquito species live in Richmond County. Turns out, mosquitoes are not all the same: Different species breed in different weather conditions and in different habitats; some species bite people, some don’t, some carry viruses, such as West Nile, while some just pester you to death; some bite during the day, some evenings, some day and night; some have a range as small as three baseball fields, but others can fly five miles. All this information is essential to learning the best way to control the insects. (And if you ever wondered, as I did, whether mosquitoes do any good in the world, the answer is yes. Like bees, they’re pollinators, Fabillar explained. Who knew?)
Eidson, who left Phinizy 10 years ago to take a research position at Clemson University, looks in amazement at what Phinizy has become: a park, an educational institution and a research facility that have surpassed anything he imagined when he was trying to sell his dream to Augustans 20 years ago. There’s no dragging potential donors to the bridge nowadays. Phinizy has 50 corporate sponsors and scores of individual donors; its researchers partner with four universities and two colleges, four school systems, four area county governments, the state of Georgia and the federal government. When the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park began 20 years ago, its budget was $2,500; its educational program consisted of a $25 tent, a rope and a bucket. This year the budget is $1.3 million.
Every citizen in Augusta should be proud to see what a return on investment they’ve received here for education, for our understanding of the river and our natural resources,” Eidson says. “What’s happened here is amazing.”
Perhaps the best salesmen for Phinizy nowadays are the kids whose classes come here for field trips. Ruth Mead—“Ms. Ruth,” as the children call her—Phinizy’s senior environmental educator, has seen it again and again over her 15 years at the site: The bus door opens and kids who have never known anything but city streets are scared to get off—they think they’re in the wilderness. But by the end of the day, they don’t want to get back on to go home. Often, Mead says, the kids who have the hardest time in the classroom are the best learners with the hands-on, kinesthetic learning they get at Phinizy.
And the next weekend, here come those same kids pulling their parents along behind them, pointing out the trees, the flowers, the birds, sharing all they just learned with “Ms. Ruth says…”
They stand on the bridge watching the clean water of Butler Creek flow through Phinizy Swamp to meet the river just beyond the trees and start the five-day journey to the ocean.
This article appears in the June-July 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.