Recently, Greenville County has seen tremendous growth and development as subdivisions pop up where farms and pastures used to line back country roads. Many people are attracted to the Greenville area because of the proximity to the Blue Ridge Mountains, the small city atmosphere and the clean water.
The upstate's water may be in danger, though. As more and more people move to the area, more of the natural surroundings are being developed to accommodate housing. Changing the natural environment means changing the natural processes involved, some that we may take for granted.
A team of researchers from Clemson University and non-profit organization Upstate Forever collaborated on the Changing Land Use and the Environment (CLUE) project to determine exactly what development does to the environment and how to lessen the impact of development.
Jointly funded by the USDA and the Saluda-Reedy Watershed Consortium, the CLUE project research ran for seven years starting back in 2001. This multidisciplinary project sought to determine the effects of land development on water quality.
Researchers at Clemson's Institute for Environmental Toxicology compared water quality at stream sites that were under new development and stream sites that had not yet been disturbed by development.
Development interfered with the natural filtration system, and resulted in poorer water quality than downstream waters of the undisturbed sites, the team discovered.
Nutrients might sound like they would be beneficial to a stream system, but too much of certain chemicals will alter nutrient cycles and ecological processes. Suspended sediments give water the dirty, cloudy look that no one finds attractive. Both of these were more prevalent downstream of development sites.
Normally, the forests and groundcover that surround a stream filter are what get into the stream, by absorbing some rainfall and its energy to prevent it from moving nutrients and sediments into the stream. The structure that roots provide also helps to hold the sediments in place. When developers change the land, they also change the function of this built-in water protection system.
Even in development regions where the recommended best management practices (BMPs) were being employed, researchers saw that water quality still suffered.
"Our results reinforced that it is not realistic to expect stormwater and sediment control practices to prevent environmental degradation within urbanized areas even if practices meet current regulatory requirements," said John Smink, lab technologist at the Institute of Environmental Toxicology.
It's easy to prove that human development is going to have negative effects on different aspects of the environment like water quality, but what happens next is the hard part — fixing the problem.
This is where Upstate Forever comes in. "Our role is mostly to facilitate the project, and to guide it all through the political process and the actual adoption of the programs that are created," urban rivers project associate Lisa Hallo said.
When government agencies invest in studies like these, they "want to see improvements for their money," Smink said.
That's where the second part of this project comes in. The information found in the study advises policy makers that developers need to be encouraged to use better BMPs and practice Low Impact Development (LID).
Economics plays a part. Developers want to maximize their profit, and normally taking extra measures to reduce impact isn't cheap.
Upstate Forever is working to "sell" this plan. "Our project is to develop market-based incentives for development to improve water quality, or to have a lesser impact on water quality," Mary Walsh, another project associate, said.
Smink talked about a possible policy in which there would be an incentive program where developers could pay a fee to be able to develop at a higher density, getting around zoning laws. Those fees would go back to support the program. Or developers could "earn" higher density by using more BMPs and LID strategies.
"We aren't saying 'no growth,' but sensible growth," Smink said.
The completion of the CLUE project was followed by an $800,000 Targeted Watersheds Implementation Grant (TWIG) at the end of 2008. Upstate Forever came up with the vision for this project and enlisted researchers to help with the more technical aspects of the project.
"I think most of the partners were surprised that it got funded because it was such a large grant. It was sort of a lofty idea," Hallo said. "Now we are kind of working through the nuts and bolts of that lofty idea."
Upstate Forever and its partners will continue working to implement better development practices to protect the water resources of the upstate.
"I've always valued how Upstate Forever seems to dig a little bit deeper and gather the science to actually support things," Hallo said. "Even though it makes things move quite a bit slower, I think it makes for a stronger program."