The Reedy River has always been a natural gathering place—an economic draw for mills during the textile boom and today, as downtown’s cascading centerpiece, attracting both tourist and resident. But attention can bring degradation, and our hometown river has run the rainbow colors of textile dyes and chemicals, suffered the Colonial Pipeline oil spill, and now fights the negative effects of urbanization. Yet, Katie Callahan likes to say the Reedy River is a restoration story. By day, Callahan is the director of Clemson University’s Center for Watershed Excellence. Also by day she serves as the president of Friends of the Reedy River, a local organization that works to educate, advocate, and start the conversation about how to protect our river and its tributaries. We sat down with Callahan to learn more about the Reedy and how we as a community can work towards its vitality.

So, why study water? >> Since I was a child, water has always been my refilling. I clearly know that I need to be by the water, do something on the water every two weeks to refuel my spirit. I grew up on a farm and have always had an interest in human interactions with water and nature, overall. I have a history of over 20 years of water-quality monitoring, watershed planning. One of my largest interests is how stakeholders are involved in conversations about water.

Let’s talk about stakeholders. Why is it important for us to care about our water? >> Water is our most critical natural resource, and when you ask people where their drinking water comes from, or what watershed they live in, there’s not really a lot of interaction there. Yet it’s our most necessary resource for health, for community vitality.

Most of us only interact with the Reedy River at Falls Park. But there’s a lot more to it. >> Yes, the Reedy River is more than its two-mile stretch through downtown and its troubled tributaries through downtown. It stretches from Travelers Rest to Lake Greenwood for 76 miles on a very skinny, narrow watershed that includes the lakes at Furman University, a lot of commercial areas, and a lot more residential neighborhoods connecting with tributaries to the Reedy.

What are some of the issues the Reedy faces? >> When you find an area that’s urbanizing, like greater Greenville is, where you have greater than 20 percent of impervious surfaces, you are very likely to start to lose the quality of your ecosystem, your macroinvertebrate habitat, and healthy fish assemblages. In urban environments, we flush out storm water through pipes, and it all hits the river at the same time and can cause scouring of the stream banks. And that sediment does end up in the bottom of the river bed, changing our ecology, changing our habitat, and making a muckier river. The Reedy River is not meant to be a mucky, muddy river. Sediment is a critical issue, a leading pollutant to our rivers statewide.

What else is going into the Reedy? >> Imagine a cocktail—that pollutant cocktail is a mix of everything that the rain washes off your landscape. So, from dog waste and bird waste and cigarette butts and shreds of plastic bags, and more—that pollutant cocktail is what is discharged to our recreational waters, with no treatment. It doesn’t go through a wastewater treatment facility.

What are some of the projects that Friends of the Reedy River is doing to address these issues? >> A lot of our efforts are focused on building awareness and fundraising so we can continue to work along the river. The project we will be completing this year will be at Cleveland Stables. We helped the City of Greenville develop that park space, paying for rain gardens and practices that will improve the river’s health at that location. Rain gardens slow down storm-water flows, use plants to naturally process those nutrients that are in storm-water flows, and allow sediment to settle out and be captured before it goes to the river.

What are your hopes for Friends of the Reedy River? >> I hope that we continue to ensure that the Reedy River has a voice in how we grow as a country and as a community. Through our collective efforts, we can affect a healthier stream riparian corridor; this is a major investment in flood control for our future, as well. We can make the river safer for contact recreation. That could be kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, wading in the river, safe fishing. Imagine looking beyond the Prisma Swamp Rabbit Trail and seeing people recreating safely in the river. We are the only city in the nation with a waterfall in our downtown. It’s a gem. It’s this huge economic driver, this tourist attraction. It’s iconic. We should be able to have more of a connection to natural spaces and recreation opportunities in the watershed overall. And once we do, we’ll be collectively more active in protecting these resources for the next generation of Greenvillians.

How To Help the Reedy River Thrive

1. Direct downspouts toward your yard to water plants, and away from impervious surfaces.

2. Raise your mower deck. Let turf grow a little taller to help decrease storm water flow and erosion.

3. If you own property along a stream, plant native! Plants like button bush, viburnums, river birch, river oats, and more do a great job of attracting wildlife and protecting the stream bank from collapsing.

4. Throw away flushable wipes, and can or throw away grease instead of pouring it down the drain. “If you saw the impact of things like flushable wipes and dumping grease down the drain, you would never forget it.

5. Always pick up after your dog and throw it away.

6. Support Friends of the Reedy River