There are shopping carts and wine bottles beneath the bridge that spans Rocky Creek near south Augusta's defunct Regency Mall.
But beyond the obvious impairments of litter and other consequences of urbanization, the stream contains its share of frogs, crustaceans and small fish - important measures of biodiversity.
Scientists hired by the city of Augusta have spent much of the year evaluating Rocky Creek and other primary streams that comprise 700 miles of waterways throughout Richmond County.
Their findings, to be reported to city commissioners later this year, show many streams have only a few problems. A few streams - such as Rocky Creek - have many problems.
"We were actually pretty pleased with what we saw," said Drew Goins, Augusta's assistant utilities director. "They're not perfect, but they're not going to be as healthy as north Georgia trout streams either."
The $1.3 million Watershed Assessment is being conducted by Parsons Engineering Science, whose scientists have sampled, waded in, caught fish from and evaluated most local streams.
The objective is to evaluate surface water resources to create a footprint of environmental quality - and also to devise ways to correct problems and avoid future pollution issues.
The assessment is a prerequisite to Augusta's broadest environmental project ever: the creation of a larger system to tap the Savannah River as a drinking-water supplier for residents.
Augusta wants Georgia's Environmental Protection Division to approve a request to increase the amount of water it gets from the river. That volume rose from 45 million gallons per day to 60 million gallons per day last year, and will rise again once long-term decisions about water supplies are made.
Soon, Augusta will decide which of two locations will be the site of a new pumping station and treatment plant. Potential sites are city-owned land near Columbia County's Savannah Rapids Pavilion and the riverbank below downtown Augusta.
"These watershed studies are a requirement if you're going to do a modification of the existing surface water system," Mr. Goins said.
Surface water has been deemed more reliable, less vulnerable to long-term contamination and less damaging to important subterranean aquifers. EPD has suggested for years that Augusta abandon its system of wells.
Overall, Augusta's streams are far less affected by pollution than many people would have thought, Mr. Goins said.
Srinivas Jalla, a Parsons engineer in charge of the chemical monitoring portion of the study, said three creeks - Rocky, Butler and Spirit - have elevated levels of fecal coliform - a bacteria from mammals.
"All fecal is not harmful to humans; only human fecal is harmful to humans," he said.
The coliform problems likely are caused by leaking sewer lines, storm water overflow and leaking septic tanks.
Is it a cause for concern?
"In terms of the whole picture, no, I wouldn't be concerned," Mr. Jalla said. "You don't look at one piece at a time - you look at the whole puzzle."
Chris Crow, a scientist who evaluated the biological monitoring results, said Rocky Creek seemed to have the highest level of impairment, but that it is not significant enough to be deemed a longterm problem.
"We're seeing impairment there, and it's across the board," he said. "But everything else came out very well."
Other creeks yielded a high number of species of fish and aquatic plants - strong indicators of environmental health.
A Watershed Assessment involves environmental studies on 700 miles of streams throughout Richmond County.
Scientists look for evidence of impacts from runoff, erosion, heavy metals, pesticides, development and other urban consequences.
Data from the $1.3 million study are a prerequisite to Augusta's request for state permits to withdraw more drinking water from the Savannah River.
Scientists concluded Rocky Creek has the most pollution problems among Rae's, Butler, Spirit, McBean and other creeks studied.
The most common problem in local streams is fecal coliform - bacteria from mammals that is thought to originate with sewer systems.
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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