Bringing back the view

Heavy equipment was used to clean up the mess at the upper end of Riverfront Park where piles of garbage and trash collected for months, creating an eyesore at the city's signature waterfront recreation area.

COLUMBIA -- Work crews are nearing the end of a meticulous effort to clean up floating garbage and logs that have ruined the scenery at Riverfront Park for months.

Virtually all the refuse is gone from the base of a lock and dam that separate the Broad River from the historic Columbia Canal.

That's a relief to park visitors and river advocates, who wondered why such an unsightly mess had been allowed to accumulate there. For at least six months, the base of the canal's dam resembled a watery garbage dump. Beer cans, plastic drink bottles, oil containers, old shoes, tires and basketballs were among the refuse bobbing in the water at the base of the dam and lock, The State reported Nov. 6.

"It's good they put forth the effort to beautify one of the coolest parks we have,'' said Alan Mehrzad, river keeper for the Congaree, Broad and lower Saluda rivers.

SCE&G, the power company responsible for maintenance at the canal's upper end, is more than 80 percent finished with the cleanup, company spokesman Robert Yanity said Tuesday. The major part of the work should be done by next week, contractor Rusty McClam said.

McClam, Mehrzad and others said while they're glad the work is about done, the community needs a long-term strategy to make sure more garbage doesn't blight the park in the future.

"It's up to all of us to keep our eyes open for stuff like this,'' said Sam McCuen, a Lexington public relations company owner who noticed the junky waterway while visiting the park in October. "We just can't let it happen.''

The cleanup effort hasn't been easy, because much of the garbage was wedged among logs massed in the Broad River above the canal's lock and dam. The swift current and logs prevented volunteers from picking up the floating refuse.

SCE&G hired McClam and Associates to extend a barge into the water as a platform for heavy equipment. Crews then drove heavy machinery onto the platform and used mechanical arms to lift the logs and debris from the water. A huge pile of logs rested along the Broad River's banks Tuesday.

Crews have been working since the week of Thanksgiving.

"They're going to keep working until they feel like they've left the job as clean as possible,'' Yanity said.

Some people have criticized Columbia and SCE&G for not responding more quickly to maintain Riverfront Park, which stretches from near EdVenture children's museum north for about three miles. It has walking trails, historic buildings and places to picnic along the Columbia Canal, dug centuries ago to accommodate shipping.

SCE&G didn't want to do the cleanup until it could repair a log-trapping device that is supposed to stop wood that floats down the Broad River from reaching the lock and dam, officials say. That is being done as part of the cleanup work.

But Columbia city officials said garbage caught in the log jam didn't come from the Broad River. The trash flotilla came from Smith Branch, a heavily developed urban creek that empties into the Broad River about a football field north of the lock and dam.

Some of the trash may have washed down the canal during a heavy storm in mid-November before the cleanup began. Garbage and logs could be seen at the base of a small hydroelectric plant at the bottom of the canal, and city public utilities director John Dooley said he's sure it washed down from above the canal.

Mehrzad said it's important for Columbia and SCE&G to stay on top of the issue so such a mess won't happen again. The state is requiring the city to regulate stormwater runoff, which is one way to prevent the garbage from accumulating in the first place, Mehrzad said.

"All this trash came from runoff on the side of the street," Mehrzad said. "When it rains, it gets washed into storm drains and into the creeks.''

Dooley said the city is discussing some type of trash trap to keep garbage from Smith Creek out of the Broad River.

"I think ultimately we will put something in Smith Branch,'' Dooley said.

Yanity said people also need to be careful about letting runoff wash household trash into creeks.

Still, he said the power company will keep an eye on the water at the base of the canal's dam and lock.

"If we see trash accumulating again, we'll work with the city's parks and rec (department) to manage that as best we can,'' Yanity said. "Hopefully in the future, it will not get to the point where it has been recently.''