As the humidity rises and tourists arrive by the van-loads, Charleston's jewels, its celebrated waterways, will be on full display. The Ashley River is one of the most precious of these gems, boasting 26 sites on the National Register of Historic Places and 30 winding miles of water that transition from freshwater forests to the mouth of the Atlantic.
Starting in the shallow tidal creeks of Dorchester County, a trip down the river is a veritable tour of the best the Lowcountry has to offer. Massive live oaks dip heavy limbs into the narrow, brackish water, before the river snakes down to the open fields of marsh grass. On its way, the river reveals the remains of Fort Dorchester, the rolling hills and manicured gardens of Middleton Plantation, and the isolated mansion at Drayton Hall. The bobbing heads of alligators and wings of egrets make frequent, lasting impressions on visitors.
The river has already had a busy 2010, with park plans, a proposed marina expansion, and a sewage spill. As population and urban expansion continue to increase, the strain on the beloved waterway has grown. In 1995, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Ashley River historic district one of the nation's 11 most endangered sites.
"The Ashley River tidal creek and estuary is one of our coastal systems where we are seeing the negative effects of development on water quality," says Lindsey Fairchilds, coastal regional coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Waterways stressed by the effects of development are found to be less diverse, less stable, and less productive than those in natural, forested watersheds, according to Fairchilds. In the Ashley River region, historical growth trends show a 250 percent loss of forested and agricultural land use between 1970 and the mid-1990s.
Late last month, an unexpected rupture in an aging wastewater pipe on the Charleston Air Force Base sent roughly 260,000 gallons of sewage through the Hunley Park drainage ditch and into the river. The leak was under control the following day.
Water samples taken by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control contained 800 parts fecal matter per milliliter at the Baker Landing and Fleet Street areas. Although lower than feared — raw sewage is 60,000 parts fecal matter per milliliter — the numbers were much higher than recommended for swimming or harvesting shellfish. Fairchilds attributes the tidal nature of the estuary for quickly filtrating the sewage.
To help reduce reckless sprawl surrounding the river, the DNR created the Ashley Scenic River Advisory Counsel in 1998 after a 22-mile segment of the waterway was designated as a state scenic river. Fairchilds chairs the counsel, composed of local property and business owners along the river. It provides recommendations for land use and development for companies and individuals looking to begin construction in the surrounding areas.
"The Ashley River Advisory Council and South Carolina DNR do not take a position for or against certain developments. We are more interested in getting the information in the hands of the right people to make the most responsible decision," she says. "Specifically, we want to see decision makers at the state, local, and individual levels consider the cumulative impact of their choices."
Members have had several victories over their more than 10 years. Triumphs include buffer regulations passed by the City of North Charleston, Dorchester County's comprehensive density and buffer land use effort, conservation developments including The Ponds and Poplar Grove, and MeadWestvaco's conservation efforts for the Watson-Hill tract.
Drayton Hall, a member of the advisory counsel, has had its own successes as far as river protection. During the mid '90s, the plantation launched a campaign to save the property's view across the river, which was threatened by a possible condo development. Funds were raised and the group was able to purchase the piece of land.
"If you visit the site today, the view from the house to the river and beyond is much the same as it was a hundred years ago," says Emily Pack, the Ashley River region coordinator for Drayton Hall.
But she says that there are some good developments on the river, pointing to smart growth plans like the brownfield redevelopment at Magnolia, the former industrial site in the Neck area between the Ashley and Interstate 26. Pack also champions the work of the City of North Charleston for creating a natural buffer for the river and environmentally friendly ordinances. The city recently made another substantial contribution — agreeing to sell a 12-acre parcel of land to Charleston County Park and Recreation. The plan will use $19 million in half-cent sales tax money to purchase land along Dorchester Road that neighbors a parcel the commission already owns on the Ashley River.
"This purchase will give us more park land and more options for its use and it also gives us the opportunity to protect and control the buffer along Dorchester Road," Executive Director of the PRC Tom O'Rourke says.
There are no definite plans or funds available for park construction. But O'Rourke says the PRC is already mulling over ideas for a "blue water" trail and access for canoes and kayaks.
Further down the river, a proposed expansion of dock space for large boats is in the works. The Charleston City Marina, owned by The Beach Co., has submitted a permit application for expansion to state and federal regulators. The marina provides slips for large yachts to visit and reside in the city. Plans would extend the megadock an additional 150 feet into the river for 80 additional slips, cutting the existing channel in half. The City Marina's Nick McGinty says he's concerned about losing slips closer to the bank because of soil build-up.
Charleston Waterkeeper Cyrus Buffum says there are still concerns regarding levels of heavy metals in the waterway.
"Recent studies conducted by Charles-ton Waterkeeper and the Masters of Environmental Studies Program at the College of Charleston have found a significant correlation between heightened levels of copper in our waterways and marinas and boat yards," Buffum says."Simply put, more boats equal more copper in our rivers and creeks."
Charleston Waterkeeper will offer suggestions to minimize impacts of the proposed expansion. Buffum says the marina has an "incredible opportunity to take a leadership role and can forge a path, setting an example for other marinas in the Charleston area."
Overall, Drayton Hall's Pack believes the state of the river is better than it has been in the past two decades thanks in part to the grassroots efforts of conservation groups and the assistance of governmental agencies.
"But as the recent sewage spill showed us, we can't let down our guard," she says. "My hope is that the next generation of children knows what it's like to jump into the river on a hot summer day, and to that end we have to continue to educate and advocate for all of the waterways in the Lowcountry."