Hitchcock Woods' Sand River erosion (copy)

Stormwater runoff into Hitchcock Woods causes erosion problems for the Sand River Canyon.

The City of Aiken and the Hitchcock Woods Foundation have announced a joint agreement to solve continued erosion and pollution issues in the historic urban forest.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the city said it has prepared a comprehensive management plan to update its stormwater system and prevent continuing erosion and damage in the woods.

Hitchcock Woods is privately owned and managed by the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, a nonprofit organization.

The woods is designated as a South Carolina Heritage Trust property and protected by a conservation easement held by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, according to the city's news release.

It is "one of the largest, if not the largest, natural preserves that is privately owned and has been managed as a natural preserve in the nation," said Pat Corey, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation.

With continued growth in the downtown area in the past 60 years, the city says the amount of stormwater draining into the woods from paved surfaces has significantly increased.

This has caused erosion and "accelerating destruction in the woods, including devastation of sensitive habitat and protected wetlands," its news release says.

Stormwater picks up street grime, silt, oil, sand, trash, pollutants and fertilizers, the statement continues. That then flows into the woods through underground pipes and open drains.

Last year, a task force was formed by Mayor Rick Osbon to address the issue. The task force included community stakeholders and representatives from the foundation.

The City also hired Columbia-based engineering firm McCormick Taylor, which has worked with the task force, to develop a stormwater management plan.

The comprehensive plan involves installing traditional and innovative "green" facilities that would be located in "strategic areas throughout the downtown area and on Hitchcock Woods Foundation property," the City says.

The plan was developed using previous studies and it provides recommendations for potential stormwater management improvements within contributing watersheds.

It will be implemented in phases over a multi-year period and involves the ultimate restoration of the Sand River channel, wetlands and habitat, according to the City's release. Holistically, the plan will include underground detention, onsite detention, offsite detention and other elements that slow down the flow of water into the woods, said Assistant City Manager Stuart Bendenbaugh.

Phase I would "focus on implementing various stormwater best management practices throughout the watershed to achieve stormwater management back to a pre-developed land use condition," an executive summary of the plan reads.

Bendenbaugh said essentially, that means an expansion of existing retention or detention areas where there are already detention ponds and also, dry detention features in rights-of-ways. 

The area encompasses east of downtown, Bendenbaugh said.

Funding for Phase I of the plan was approved by Aiken County and city voters as part of Capital Projects Sales Tax referendum conducted in 2004 and 2010, according to the release. Both the city and the foundation – funded solely by private donations – plan to actively seek grants and other financial resources to implement the future phases of the plan.

The comprehensive plan will be presented to Aiken City Council in a public work session on Monday and considered by City Council during the regular meeting.

Aiken City Manager John Klimm and the mayor praised the city and foundation working together in prepared statements.

"The city is committed to updating its outdated stormwater system to alleviate flooding on city streets, damage to other critical infrastructure such as roads, sewer and water pipes, and the preservation of the Hitchcock Woods, which is an integral part of Aiken's history and unique character," Osbon said. "The woods have always been a haven for school children, educators, archeologists, hikers, runners, dog walkers, nature lovers and equestrians."

The mayor later told the Aiken Standard in an interview, "I think everyone realized there would be a solution, and it's time. … Even though I don't know if everyone at the table was optimistic that we would get to the point that we are, I think everybody persevered (and) worked through differences."

Osbon said a large part of the contention was if the solution would be off woods property or on, and this agreement uses both.

Corey said after 20 years of study, the foundation appreciates the efforts of Osbon and the task force, and said the solution benefits Aiken residents and the woods.

"We are proud to be a partner in this shared solution and look forward to working closely with the city in the years to come," Corey said. "We’re very grateful for the City’s steps they took to reach the point that we are at now. The progress is huge when you consider we've been talking this for 60 years. The significance is huge. To me, it's historic process."

Christina Cleveland is the city government reporter at the Aiken Standard.

Christina Cleveland is a reporter with the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since October 2015. A native of Seneca, South Carolina, she holds a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.