Hollis Mays has done just about everything right. For 30 years the master gardener has guided two James Island neighborhoods to keep the stormwater pond they share vital and full of wildlife.
Tiny fish swarm along the edges, bales of turtles lift their heads. Despite the busy Folly Road environs, an otter pair raised its young there until one of the otters was killed on the road. Pelicans come for the easier pickings. Fox and wild turkey show up. Heron and egret step up on the floating plant rafts to perch for fish. Mallards and wood ducks frequent.
Since trees were cleared and ground was broken this year on the controversial Maybank Highway "gathering place" development that the Lakeside and Cross Creek neighborhoods sit behind, the ducks are gone and the wading birds fewer, Mays and other neighborhood residents say. Mays is worried about rainwater runoff from the development compromising the water quality and aquatic life she has fostered.
When it comes to managing stormwater ponds in developments, you can do everything right and still be undone by what can happen next door.
The "gathering place" project underway is a 280-unit apartment complex and a six-level parking garage. It was approved as part of Charleston's plan to limit growth in rural areas, by promoting mixed use and denser development in certain key areas.
But that dense a complex, along the already busy convergence of Maybank Highway and Folly Road, has upset residents around it, including in the Cross Creek and Lakeside neighborhoods, after trees began to be cleared.
Representatives from the Lakeside and Cross Creek homeowners groups have made plans to meet with city officials and hope to meet with the developers, to get a wooded buffer that was left between the construction and the pond extended. The buffer is thin enough now that the construction can be seen from the pond.
Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who represents the neighborhoods, said he and other city officials will do a walk-through Thursday to assess any impacts on the pond. The developers committed earlier to buffer plantings, he said.
Bill Eubanks, creative director of Urban Edge Studio at Seamon, Whiteside & Associates, is working with the Maybank developers. Eubanks isn't aware of any problems at the site, he said, and builders are following a strict set of zoning codes about setbacks and buffers.
"I'm sure (the neighborhoods') concerns are unfounded," he said.
Stormwater ponds have become the standard for handling rain runoff at residential and commercial developments in the past quarter-century. More than 14,000 have been dug along the South Carolina coast. They sequester pollution, such as gasoline, oil, pet waste, fertilizer nutrients, garbage and varnish from lawns and streets, that otherwise would run into the waterways.
But as The Post and Courier reported in July, the build-up of toxic sediment makes the ponds tougher to handle and a high-dollar hazardous substance removal job waiting to happen. Meanwhile, marine life-killing "algal blooms," are a chronic problem.
Handling them is a delicate, work-intensive balancing act. As just one example, some fish species help control algae and birds feeding on the fish help control the fish. But too many birds leave waste that exacerbates algae blooms.
Mays is a diminutive woman in a broad straw hat. A Charleston native, she turned a green thumb into a crusade when she moved to Lakeside 30 years ago. Her tiny yard has so many plants she can't keep track - including pomegranates, persimmons, oranges, lemons and limes.
She has been the genie of the 7-acre basin pond that Lakeside and Cross Creek share. She encouraged neighbors to pull up the provided development plants and replace them with native species around the water's edge, replace hard surfaces with more natural rain-absorbing surfaces where possible. She and others have set out "rafts" of plants, literally floating cultivator pods. All help keep pollutants from the water or filter them.
Unlike some barren-looking subdivision ponds, the neighborhood basin is a water garden.
"Simple yet effective tactics have been employed by one very caring steward of the environment," said Cathryn Zommer, of Cross Creek.
"They're doing the type of things that we often recommend," said Guinn Garrett, Clemson University Extension water resources extension agent, who works with stormwater pond issues. "Hollis is definitely unique. She's on top of this game."
For the first few years, Mays and her neighbors simply enjoyed the pond, tooling around on peddle boats and paddle boats, a few even swimming. Then the Japanese knotweed showed up. The invasive species began to take over.
So, she went to work, occasionally slogging into the pond in wader boots to pull the stuff out hand-over-hand. She pushed the native planting - pickerel weed, rushes, irises, cannas, powdery alligator-flag. It has been a lot of work, she concedes, but not a lot of expense.
"This is our little lake that we love. We don't think of it so much as a (stormwater) pond than as a wonderful ecosystem for the neighborhood," Mays said. Now she has to go next door to protect it.
"I'm hoping they're going to work with us about this," she said.
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