Phinizy Swamp has not always been the picturesque nature park that it is today. The swamp has gone through tremendous changes over the years and many people have left their mark. Native Americans first occupied this area, leaving behind arrowheads and other evidence of the tribes that called the swamp home. The proximity to the river made the swamp an attractive place to live. Ferdinand Victor Francois Phinizy, an Italian entrepreneur who was the first Phinizy to settle in the area after arriving in North America in 1778, saw the Savannah River as a business opportunity. The Cason family also owned land here, as is evident by a family cemetery located on the Butler Creek Trail.
Much of the Nature Park has been extensively farmed as well as used for cattle pasture. Gracewood, a state-run mental health institution, operated a beef farm in this area from the 1950’s to 1973 and used patients as farmhands. It was nicknamed the “swamp farm”. In 1973, the land was acquired by the city of Augusta and remained undeveloped, becoming an illegal dumping site. When the Phinizy Center for Water Sciences (at that time named Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy) was formed in the 1990’s, much of the trash left from years of illegal dumping was removed.
Phinizy Swamp is much bigger than the 1,100 acres of the Nature Park. It is estimated to be about 7,000 acres and covers almost all the land between Doug Barnard Parkway, Gordon Highway and the Savannah River. It includes the Merryland Brickyard, the DNR Phinizy Swamp Wildlife Management Area, as well as Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.
Since the 1880’s, the city of Augusta used Butler Creek, which meanders through Phinizy Swamp before merging into the Savannah River, as a wastewater and storm water conduit. Basically, sewage from Augusta was dumped into a man-made ditch, known as Phinizy Ditch, which started in downtown and led straight into Butler Creek. The impacts on the ecosystem were devastating. Over the years, the creek became a dead zone with little to no life. The dumping of raw sewage continued until 1968.
In 1968, under pressure from the approaching passage of the Clean Water Act, the city of Augusta built a wastewater treatment plant. Water used by households and industry was now piped to the treatment plant, but after treatment it was still released into Butler Creek and then into the Savannah River. With the increase in city population, the large industrial presence, and the tightening of environmental laws, the wastewater treatment plant quickly became incapable of properly cleaning the wastewater. In 1993, the city was ordered to upgrade its wastewater treatment system. Many options were considered, but a novel proposal to use man-made wetlands as a tertiary (or third) step in the treatment process was ultimately chosen as the solution. Treated wastewater that was once piped into Butler Creek is now sent through the constructed wetlands system.
Butler Creek is now a recovering ecosystem. River otters that had disappeared years ago are returning to the creek, beavers are flourishing and other wildlife is recovering as well. Today, pollution intolerant insects such as mayflies, caddis flies, and riffle beetles can be found in Butler creek.
During the construction of the manmade wetlands, ten acres of Phinizy Swamp’s natural wetlands were impacted. In accordance with the Clean Water Act, a loss of wetlands must be mitigated by creating new wetlands, restoring impacted wetlands, or preserving threatened wetlands. This marked the first time in the Southeast that the Corps of Engineers accepted education as a form of wetland mitigation. The establishment of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, now Phinizy Center for Water Sciences (Phinizy Center), was proposed as an innovative form of wetland mitigation. It was founded in response to a critical need in the community for leadership in natural resources management and environmental education.
Phinizy Center’s mission is to promote environmental stewardship through research, education, and public outreach. Phinizy Center conducts research in watershed management and river basin ecology focusing on impacts to the Savannah River and its tributaries. Education programs feature hands-on, science-based learning experiences for school field trips, professional development for K-12 teachers, as well as education for lifelong learners. Several ongoing events fulfill Phinizy Center’s mission of public outreach, including monthly nature hikes, full moon walks, annual Earth Day celebrations, and family bike rides.