Originally created 12/12/04

Science academy marches along toward goals



Gene Eidson sees a distinct relationship between fourth-graders studying water pollution and two governors concerned over water rights for their constituents.

"When kids can see research at work, that creates an interest in career paths in science," said Dr. Eidson, the president of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, which is involved in both research and education.

The same research that can inspire children to become scientists also can help resolve a growing list of water issues that will affect Augusta, its economy and the quality of life for its residents, he said.

The academy, barely eight years from its 1996 inception, already has classrooms, a visitors center and other infrastructure valued at more than $3.5 million - all based at its 1,100-acre Phinizy Swamp Nature Park between Lock & Dam Road and the Savannah River.

Visitation during 2004 is estimated at 40,000, including more than 8,000 pupils from area schools.

The academy's newest initiative involves a $1.8 million capital campaign to establish an administrative headquarters for its Center for Urban River Research, and plans for a new series of projects titled "Savannah River at Risk."

So far, a $300,000 pledge from the Knox Foundation has helped the nonprofit institution generate almost $750,000 of the $1.8 million needed. The pledge will help establish a new administrative building between the existing education and research buildings.

"As far as buildings go on this site, that would be the last piece of the puzzle," Dr. Eidson said. Groundbreaking will be held next year, with planned amenities that include offices, an auditorium, conference rooms and a library.

The capital campaign is the latest in a growing number of initiatives undertaken by the academy, which also operates a wetlands mitigation bank and ecological restoration area on nearby land owned by Merry Land Properties.

The Merry property is a component of the nearly 6,000 acres that comprise what is generally known as Phinizy Swamp, an environmentally significant area that drains about 75 square miles of Richmond County. The academy jointly manages 1,500 acres controlled by Georgia's Department of Natural Resources.

Adjoining the swamp is Augusta's Messerly Wastewater Plant, where artificial wetlands developed by the academy and others have been successful in improving the quality of treated effluent that eventually drains into the Savannah River.

All those efforts blend together in a mix of education and research that Dr. Eidson hopes will make the academy unique in its field. Ultimately, one of its goals is to seek university status, which will enable students to receive transferable credits for courses offered in Augusta.

The academy already offers environmental courses through its affiliation with schools such as University of Georgia and Clemson. The eventual accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools would give the academy the ability to offer its own course work.

The objective, he said, would be to complement offerings of other institutions, rather than try to duplicate them.

The Savannah River, in particular, promises to be a fertile opportunity for research that will become more relevant as demands for water increase.

The River at Risk studies will include efforts to explore the impact of large cities such as Augusta on rivers like the Savannah.

"It's hard for anyone to look at the river and see it as a finite resource, because it looks like we have so much water," Dr. Eidson said.

The truth, however, is that the Savannah is like many American rivers: a very limited supply that becomes more and more important as demands increase.

"Already, just talking about the Savannah, we're told we've over-allocated the river," he said, referring to discussions between the governors of Georgia and South Carolina about how much of the river's drinking water and waste assimilation capacity each state can rightly claim.

"When we talk about wasteload allocation, we're told that both states share this important resource," he said. "But how do you do that when 90-plus percent is already taken up by Georgia?"

The academy's goals include further study of ways to improve water quality and find ways to reduce man's impact on the river. One future project involves a plan to use recycled wastewater for industrial processes, thus eliminating pollutants that currently enter the river.

"We want to define the issues, then come up with solutions," he said. "It's that simple."

Eventually, the academy plans to leave its offices behind the old Richmond Academy Building in downtown Augusta, which it had planned to renovate for permanent quarters. Although the building has plenty of room, its age makes rehabilitation requirements expensive and difficult.

"We want to develop something on the river," Dr. Eidson said. "It could be downtown, or somewhere nearby. We have to just look and see what's available."

What it has to offer

Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy projects:

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park: 1,100 acres with boardwalks, educational programs, offices and research and activities.

Phinizy Swamp Wildlife Management Area: Operated by Georgia's Department of Natural Resources for public hunting and recreation, the 1,500-acre site is jointly managed by the academy, which incorporates the area into broader research projects.

Constructed Wetlands: A series of man-made lagoons and canals, blended with selected plantings, has been successful in reducing pollution that flows from Augusta's Messerly Wastewater Plant into Butler Creek, which empties into the Savannah River.

Mining reclamation: A project to transform contaminated mining pits in Ridgeway, S.C., into fertile lakes was started with a $300,000 grant at Kennecott-Ridgeway Mining Co. in Fairfield County, S.C. - the largest gold mine east of the Mississippi.

Wetlands Mitigation Bank: The restoration of former strip mines off Laney-Walker Boulevard includes a mitigation bank, where developers buy "credits" to compensate for environmental damage at construction sites. Those credits help finance the mitigation bank area, which is being restored to a riverine forest.

River at Risk: An ongoing effort to identify and resolve important issues related to the impact of cities on major rivers like the Savannah. The academy has a research vessel and plans to establish a laboratory somewhere along the Savannah River.

UNIVERSITY STATUS

Steps to accreditation:

  • Design and offer science programs for middle and high school students first.
  • Meet criteria that include a full-time faculty, facilities, a library and financing.
  • Seek "special purpose" accreditation from Southern Association of Colleges & Schools.l Make application in 2005, with initial accreditation accomplished by 2008.
  • Continue offering college courses through UGA, Clemson and affiliate universities.l Expand accreditation to college level, meaning local courses are transferable.
  • Expand into a nationally recognized education center for restoration ecology.
  • Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.