Land conservation expected to save millions in utilities > GSA Business

This story first appeared in the June 27 print edition of the GSA Business Report.

When the Greenville County Historic and Natural Resources Trust’s first project was completed—the acquisition of 170 acres added to Jones Gap State Park—a partner was an exception to the typical conservation lineup.

SC Parks, Recreation and Tourism; the Naturaland Trust; the SC Conservation Bank; and the Open Space Institute are a few familiar faces on the state’s land curatorial team. But this time around, Easley Combined Utilities, a local water, sewage and electric service provider, also put their hat in the ring.

“It just makes a lot of sense to us,” said Joel Ledbetter, managing director of Easley Combined Utilities.

Easley has drawn drinking water from Lake Saluda since 1970, he said, but in recent decades the lake has begun to disappear under layers of sediment. Not only would less water be available, but it was expected to impact water quality for the utility’s 100,000 customers.

In 2012, Easley Combined Utilities spent over $7 million to dredge the lake from 360,000 cubic meters of silt.

In 2018, two-thirds of the sediment returned to the upper end of the lake.

“It wasn’t the return on investment that we would like to see,” he said.

Easley Combined Utilities then hired Save our Saluda’s Melanie Ruhlman as a contract watershed manager and began taking preventative action by conserving land in the 200 square mile watershed. The utility’s first foray was an $850,000 investment in a 225-acre parcel on Cooley Bridge Road that was being primed for development. A year later, Naturaland Trust purchased the land for $500,000 in partnership with the SC Conservation Bank.

Next, Easley Combined Utilities helped preserve 170 acres of hardwood forest and headwaters of the Saluda River. Nearly 800 feet of the property borders the Middle Saluda River itself.

“Everything that happens in this watershed actually affects us at our lake and our plant, and we just realized that it’s much more profitable to conserve and invest in preservation,” Ledbetter said. . “And that’s why we started this path with SOS (Save our Saluda), Naturaland Trust and of course I’m working with Greenville County and the conservation bank to preserve this plot that we talked about in River Falls, 170 acres. It was important for us to participate.”

The head of utilities noted that the quest to preserve the watershed is a long-term investment that will outlast his time at Easley Combined Utilities. He has heard of a few counterparts who have taken the same initiatives.

But he has seen industries – including those in the Saluda watershed – become much more aware of their impact on the environment and drinking water.

“We have a local business here that dumps into our waste stream, and when they try to do business, their customers want to see if they’ve had any environmental violations and impacts. And it allows them to do business,” Ledbetter said.

Bridging the gap

SC Parks, Recreation and Tourism is working with the Open Space Institute to write a funding proposal with the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to allow the property to trade hands, according to an announcement. The public will be able to access the property once it is under national park management.

“As we take possession, we are working to identify how to most effectively and strategically protect the new area and share it with visitors,” Duane Parrish, SC Parks Director, Recreation and Tourism, said in the announcement. The property’s unique landscape offers significant opportunities to increase public access, and our list of potential projects currently includes adding much-needed parking lots, creating wheelchair-accessible pathways, and providing more square footage. to discover for visitors.

According to Raleigh West, executive director of SC Conservation Bank, the property will help one of South Carolina’s most popular parks stem the surging demand that since the pandemic has led to parking reservations on busy weekends. . A new entrance gate will provide more parking possibilities, the restoration of a small farm and access for visitors with reduced mobility.

He also hopes that Easley Combined Utility’s contribution will start a trend as waste and drinking water utilities realize how much they can save on the ecology by preserving land in their local watershed.

“Easley is way ahead of this problem, but I think you’ll see more of it over time,” he said, nodding to conservation efforts at electric utilities Santee Cooper and Duke Energy. . “But I think it’s the first one that actually involves a utility program trying to save properties they don’t have.”

The Greenville County Historic and Natural Resources Trust invested $100,000 in the project along with $500,000 from the Conservation Bank. West estimated Easley Combined Utility’s contribution at $70,000.

“For a relatively modest investment, by cultivating and facilitating these partnerships, we are able to spread the burden and the benefits among diverse groups,” West said. “It’s really powerful.”

Contact Molly Hulsey at 864-720-1223.

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