Reclaiming polluted retention ponds on Johns Island 

Bringing Nature Back

Close your eyes and imagine a pond. Do you see bullfrogs sitting on lily pads, catching flies with their long tongues? Maybe there are turtles sunning their shells on the tops of floating logs. Perhaps you'll imagine children swimming and fishing from a floating dock.

For many people today, the reality is much different. The ponds that most folks see on a regular basis are the ones outside their apartment complexes or along the roads of the subdivision they call home. Many have a fountain in the middle, some may even have a resident alligator, but most are relatively dead bodies of water, collecting stormwater runoff and whatever chemical pollutants that water picks up on the way. They're certainly not fit for swimming.

Thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, many developments are required to include retention ponds in their plans, but with that regulation comes a set of problems. The fertilizer used on the grass and lawns that surround the pond often enters the water in runoff, causing nitrogen and phosphates to build up. In order to combat algae blooms induced by the chemical "nutrients," copper sulfates are commonly added to the water; these heavy metals in time only make the pond less natural.

Just as troubling, these man-made ponds are often used to help a developer who has built on swamp or marshland meet requirements for preserving wetlands, even though these retention pools are completely separate from the surrounding ecosystem.

Brian and Stuart Schuck may have the answer to cleaning up retention ponds. Twenty years ago, the brothers founded Charleston Aquatic Nurseries on Johns Island, a business specializing in selling ornamental plants for backyard ponds and water gardens. Keenly aware of the growth of retention ponds (there are over 8,000 along the Highway 17 corridor in S.C.), the brothers realized the potential for transforming chemical pools into functioning, natural habitats.

"Idealistically, there are lots of new neighborhoods where we can come in, beautify the place, and it's good to go from there on out," says Stuart. "Right now there are all these gross-looking ponds full of algae and cattails in everybody's neighborhood."

The Schucks call their method the "synergy system," and it involves two of their own inventions — wetland carpet and floating islands.

It works like this: Coconut fiber is used to create a floating mat, which is then seeded with native plants and flowers. The island's roots reach deep into the pond, filtering the water and providing cover for small fish that eat mosquito and insect larvae, adding to the human benefit. (The plants also filter the "nutrients" from chemicals out of the water, which would otherwise cause algae blooms.) Meanwhile, a carpet of thalia, bulrush, and lizard's tail is planted along the pond's shoreline; the carpet controls erosion and reportedly absorbs 20 percent of pollutants running into the pond before the runoff reaches the water. The company grows 15-by-3-feet rolls of the seeded fiber, which is placed along the shoreline and quickly takes root. Creating and planting a "synergy system" costs about $10,000 per acre of pond — more than copper treatment but not astronomical.

The carpet and island programs, combined with subsurface aeration (i.e., an underwater fountain), can turn an otherwise toxic pond into a sanctuary for wildlife and migrating birds. The system makes the area a lot prettier for its human inhabitants as well.

"One of our biggest challenges is getting neighborhoods and homeowners associations to spend money on stormwater," says Stuart. Most of the nursery's recent business has been with landscapers in North Carolina, where laws regulating stormwater and retention ponds require shoreline planning. Still, their work is starting to build interest locally. They've recently supplied native shoreline plants to the new Publix shopping center on Highway 17 and two ponds in the Etiwan neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant.

"The ponds are doing awesome," says Jeff Childs, the project manager who contracted with Charleston Aquatic at Etiwan. "They put the rope carpet down in June, then planted inside that. They took up really well, and the plants are almost waist high now. It's gorgeous."

Nursery employee Osee Koger points out that cleaning up retention ponds falls right in line with the nationwide movement to "green" our lives. Using plants instead of copper in a pond benefits both wildlife and ourselves by keeping chemicals from accumulating in animals' bodies — mercury in fish is just the latest example of how that reaches humans in the food chain.

"We're starting to run out of water in the South, and cleaning up stormwater is where the solution starts," says Koger. "All the crap that runs into our ponds sits there and filters down, eventually making its way into our water table."

In addition to churning out the carpet and islands, the Schucks are also researching which native plants are the most productive at creating biomass and cleaning a pond the fastest. They've largely avoided cattails, which monopolize an area quickly, in favor of a diverse mix of pickerel weed, irises, and thalia, which grows "10 feet high and looks like a banana tree in the water," according to Stuart.

It seems obvious that planting a buffer and retrofitting ponds with floating plants would be favorable to chemical treatments, and the Schucks hope the public soon agrees that an initial investment in sustainability outweighs the toxic alternative. They're optimistic about the potential for cleaning up Florida's miles of roadside canals, possibly even growing aquatic grasses that could be used for biofuels in the otherwise chemical cesspools.

As he walks between rows of coconut fiber sprouting countless green stalks, Stuart talks excitedly about rain gardens utilizing gutter runoff, ditches that filter pollutants from driveways, and the possibility of keeping chemicals out of our rivers and oceans.

"We're reinvigorating our passion," he says of their shift from ornamentals to plants with a purpose. "The amount of places that can benefit from native plants is unlimited."


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