History, debris flow along Rae's Creek

Bill Bass says the water near his home Lake Aumond, background, has been creeping up steadily this year to the point where an area that he planted grass on is now underwater.

Rae's Creek is both a blessing and a bother to Bill Bass.

 

"Sometimes it's beautiful," he said. "But it also has its problems."

Bass moved to a home on Lake Aumond -- fed by Rae's Creek -- almost 15 years ago.

Since then, the problems plaguing the waterway made famous by Augusta National Golf Club's Amen Corner have worsened.

"You want tennis balls? I have a trash can full," he said.

When it rains, they wash downstream from a nearby racquet club -- along with paper cups, cigarette butts and other litter.

The creek has always had issues with urban runoff, lawn fertilizers and litter, but environmentalists say there is mounting evidence it also faces contamination issues that warrant intervention -- and more protection.

In 2008, for example, research students led by Augusta State University biology professor Donna Wear found elevated levels of mercury, arsenic and other toxic materials in fish and sediment samples. Other issues include low oxygen, siltation and erosion.

Tonya Bontatibus, leader of the Savannah Riverkeeper group, believes it might be time to add the creek to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division's list of impaired waterways, which entitles them to better monitoring and more protection.

"When EPD showed us data for impaired waterways, Rae's Creek wasn't even on it," she said. "That's just a product of not having the data collected in the way the state needs to have it."

Bontatibus noted that Augusta officials are planning the eventual dredging of Lake Olmstead on the creek's lower end -- and expressed hopes the project will include other areas, such as Lake Aumond and Hiers Pond.

"Some of the areas farther upstream are in much worse shape than Lake Olmstead," she said. "It wouldn't work to clean the lower end of the creek without cleaning up the upper end first."

A group loosely known as the Rae's Creek Coalition has gradually been collecting new data on the waterway, which -- in time -- could be used to help change its designation to an impaired waterway.

Currently, such designations apply to portions of McBean, Spirit and Rocky creeks in Richmond County.

"If it were listed as an impaired stream, it opens up possible federal funding and it also opens it up to monitoring that must occur by EPD," she said. "It helps define the general recognition that there is a problem with the waterway so we can move forward to rehabilitate it."

Jeff Darley, the program manager at EPD's Augusta district office, said the designations are managed by the Stream Monitoring Unit, which concentrates on different watersheds each year.

Impaired waterway designations can be made for many reasons, including sediment issues, low oxygen, fecal coliform and other types of pollution.

A waterway designated as impaired by sediment, for example, might get better protection from upstream development through better land management practices.

Many of the creek's problems stem from its long history -- and its path through many of Augusta's most urbanized areas.

The creek's headwaters spring from the ground off Frontage Road near Interstate 20. It crosses Wrightsboro Road twice before flowing toward west Augusta.

Ever since Irishman John Rae established a grist mill on its banks in 1765, the creek that now bears his name has fostered lumber mills, a possible gold mine and a foundry -- all possible sources of the heavy metals and other materials found by Augusta State students in their surveys.

Today, its banks are mostly flanked by neighborhoods.

"At the very least, it needs to be cleaned up, visually," Bass said. "There is so much silt in some places, you can walk across it."