Columbus County has around 2,000 miles of ditches, laterals and canals – and most of them need work.
“We don’t have a drainage problem – we have a water management problem,” said Edward Davis of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS) Columbus County office.
Davis is in charge of administering the multi-million dollar stream and waterway clearance project currently underway in the county. The county received more than $2 million in grant funding for an aggressive program to remove snags, blockages and beaver dams in virtually every waterway in the county.
The first of the grants was approved in August, and work began last fall. Chainsaw crews have been manually removing snags and dams throughout the county, and an explosives specialist has been blowing beaver dams in several high-risk, flood-prone areas.
Much of the county’s natural and manmade waterways have received no maintenance since before Hurricanes Fran and Floyd. Subsequent storms – not to mention the catastrophic flooding with Hurricane Matthew – brought the need for drainage improvements to a critical point last year.
Repairing and maintaining waterways is more of a priority than creating new ones, Davis said.
“We have plenty of drainage in Columbus County,” he said, noting that the county has more miles of waterways than roads. “We do not need draglines nor backhoes digging in our wetlands and swamps. We did enough of that back in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s.
“We need to manage the drainage that we have by identifying our major streams, obtain landowner permission to monitor them, identify the issues, (whether it be overgrown trees in a canal, downed trees causing blockages, beaver dams or even sediment issues) then, once issues are identified, seek funding to address them.
“We need to become proactive with our water management instead of reactive.”
On a recent afternoon, Davis stopped by to check on the progress of a major drainage chokepoint in upper Columbus. Much of the stormwater from the Western Prong area flows through several swamps in the Red Hill Road community. A half-dozen beaver dams there, Edwards said, were just part of the problem that caused the flooding and washout of U.S. 701 at Western Prong, miles away.
After beaver trapper Dan Jones took nearly two dozen beaver from the swamps, the crew used a proprietary explosive to blast open the now-unused beaver dams. Water throughout the heavily forested swamp dropped within days, making room for any heavy runoff from upstream.
Davis pointed out fresh bite-marks on a tree, as well as castor mounds used by beavers to mark territory. Nearby, a large mound of cut sticks, mud and debris had been used to build a conical “lodge” used by beavers as a home.
“That one would make a nice fixer-upper, a starter home,” Davis laughed.
During winter, beavers pile more edible branches and sticks on top of the lodge, both for food and to help secure their home.
Adolescent beavers are usually evicted from the nest during their second year, Davis said, at which point they seek out mates and begin establishing their own territories. After starting out in a burrow dug into a bank, the beavers will dam a stream, run or ditch, creating a pond. When the pond is large enough – and the young mated pair have their first litter on the way – they will build a larger home in the middle of the pond. Oftentimes, adolescents will take over a disused lodge and dam.
“That’s why we have to keep managing and monitoring beaver activity in critical places,” he explained. “Let’s say you trap out a family, and blow the dam. A few months later, especially at this time of year, a new mated pair will move in, and the whole problem starts all over again.”
Not every beaver pond or dam in the county qualifies for the beaver management program, Davis said.
“Beavers really do have a place in the environment,” he said. “If a dam isn’t flooding a field or ruining timber, there’s no reason to tear it out. A dam that backs water into a farmer’s fields or a neighborhood is one thing, but a dam in the middle of the swamp doesn’t hurt anybody, and helps other species. That’s why we have to evaluate every request for help. Many of them will be approved, but not every single one.”
While beaver management gets the most attention, Davis said “beavers are not all of our problem.
“We have ditches that haven’t been cleaned in decades,” he said. “There are canals filled with silt, and streams that have snags catching everything that comes downstream, forming a new dam. We have to find these problems and work with the landowner to address them. Sometimes it’s a little bit of chainsaw, work, sometimes it’s something more.”
While some area residents have been frustrated at a perceived lack of progress, Davis pointed out that drainage work has to begin at the bottom of a waterway, so the water has somewhere to go.
“That’s part of what takes so much time,” he said. “A little bit of work five miles away downstream might drain your property, but we have to be sure that draining your property doesn’t flood someone else’s home.”
Then there are state-owned and maintained systems to consider, Davis said.
While DOT does not repair private drainage systems, crews are at work somewhere in the county almost every day, opening up ditches and canals along state rights of way.
The DOT right of way water systems are designed to remove water from the roads, not private property. The state is prohibited from cleaning ditches past the width of the right of way except in an emergency.
Many private water systems feed into state ditches – which themselves feed into private ditches and canals on their way to swamps or the Waccamaw River. A single blockage can cause a chain reaction for an entire watershed.
“Even just one private ditch that isn’t clear can mess up a whole community,” Davis said.
Simply removing silt, then straightening and channelizing streams – as was done decades ago – is not an option, Davis said. Such projects are difficult to get approved by environmental officials, and often cause more harm than good.
In addition to desnagging and clearing, Davis said, a number of waterways could benefit from major infrastructure improvements, such as “levelers” and flood-control devices. Most of those improvements would need to be on private property, and privately maintained, he said. At the same time, precautions would have to be taken to avoid sending too much water downstream, too fast.
“We don’t need to straight-line our stormwater to the coast,” he said. “If we were to do that, we would pollute our shellfish areas so bad that we would never be able to eat another oyster. But we could use controllable dams in strategic areas to hold water back during normal rainfall periods that can be released when flood prone storm events are predicted.”
In some cases, Davis said, he doesn’t see any option except relocating homeowners.
“Some issues can’t be economically addressed,” he said. “We need to work with those landowners to buy them out and help them relocate. That’s always a difficult path to follow, but sometimes it’s the best long-term answer for everyone involved.”
In the meantime, Davis said, work will continue on downstream clearing projects designed to give landowners some relief. The county also needs more beaver trappers to participate in the $40-a-head bounty program, and landowners with drainage systems need to evaluate the condition of ditches and canals on their properties.
“There’s no magic silver bullet,” he said. “There are a lot of parts that play a role in managing drainage. One thing is for sure: we don’t need more drainage. What happens 20 years from now? You just end up with more drainage that needs to be repaired. We need to maintain what we have, and that goes for everyone from the state and county to the landowner with a ditch running in front of his house.”