Category: Phinizy Blog Feed

New Project to Provide Information for Savannah River Flow Requirements

Phinizy Center Starts New Project to Provide Needed Information on Ecosystem Flow Requirements for the Savannah River


Photo courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers

River flow below Clarks Hill Lake is regulated by the United States Army Corps of Engineers at Thurmond Dam. In recent years there has been an increased effort to understand how different flows affect the ecology of the river and incorporate this information into how water is managed in the Savannah River Basin. This information is vital during drought conditions when we need to conserve water in the reservoirs but still provide enough water to protect the aquatic ecology within the river below the dam. Data from this project will help support the ongoing Savannah River Basin Comprehensive Study (Interim 2), which focuses on reservoir and river management during drought conditions.

This month, our research team will begin a new 14-month project on the Savannah River. The goal of this study is to determine how different flows in the river affect certain organisms; this will allow us to develop flow recommendations during times of drought. We will collaborate with Dr. Richard Horwitz, a fisheries expert with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (ANSP-DU), to develop annual flow recommendations using ANSP-DU’s annual Savannah River fisheries data which dates back to 1952 and historical United States Geological Survey flow data. From this data we can determine how flows in one year affected different fish species survival and growth in subsequent years. This approach works well for long-lived species like fish, but is insufficient for making recommendations for species with shorter lifespans. As a result, we will develop monthly flow recommendations using aquatic insect production, which is simply a measure of how much insect growth occurs over a given time. Insects perform an important function in aquatic food webs by eating bacteria, algae, and dead plant material and serving as prey for other aquatic animals like fish. To measure this production, we will sample aquatic insects for 12 months to determine how long each generation lives in the water and measure growth rates for each species. We will be able to determine how flows impact these organisms and provide monthly flow recommendations from the aquatic insect data. We will collaborate with Dr. Checo Colon-Gaud at Georgia Southern University on this portion of the project.

A portion of the funding for this project was awarded to Phinizy Center for Water Sciences by the Savannah-Upper Ogeechee Water Council through a matching grant opportunity from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s Regional Water Plan Seed Grant program. Funds provided to Phinizy Center from Columbia County’s Water Utility Program, in support of our Savannah River research program, were used as matching funds for this grant.

Paddle Georgia

Paddle Georgia

IMG_20150621_091138012Imagine yourself on a river for a week far away from the hassles of everyday life. Three hundred some other paddlers have joined you in your 95 mile journey. You must be on Paddle GA! Paddle GA is an annual event run by Georgia River Network (GRN). Each June they offer a 7 day paddle down one of Georgia’s amazing rivers. The goal: to ensure clean water legacy by engaging & empowering citizens to protect, restore, & ENJOY our rivers. This year’s paddle focused on the hidden gem – the Ogeechee!

IMG_20150620_081417375The mysterious black water of the Ogeechee – one of Georgia’s few free flowing rivers – meanders through thousands of acres of tupelo / cypress swamp as it make its way to the Atlantic some 16 miles south of Savannah. Its history is rich, even providing Sherman access into Savannah by way of a 16 mile canal connecting the Ogeechee to the Savannah River. Recent history involved a major fish kill four years ago that was instrumental in getting the Phinizy Center research team involved in monitoring her waters.

Ruth's Paddling Partners

Ruth’s Paddling Partners

Phinizy educator Ruth Mead joined the paddle as both a Project WET facilitator and GA Adopt A Stream (AAS) trainer. She traveled to Portal, GA High School on June 19th to lead 5 educators on scholarship to Paddle GA in a Project WET curriculum workshop. The trip started the next day, and Ruth would work with her team throughout the week as they provided fun activities to the paddlers.

The Ogeechee runs wild in the winter months, some ten foot higher than summer. The trails of its path can be seen in the high water marks on the trees and the new channels are constantly being made. Its channels often narrow and wind through tunnels of willow branches before opening back up and gracing its guests with beautiful sandy beaches. The paddlers experienced all of these wonders. The second day and the longest paddle, 17 miles, hour long traffic jams were experienced as the strainer team cut passes in the willows. A rope swing and a sandy beach provided a welcome wait for clear passage.

Lunch with 300 People

Lunch with 300 People

Throughout the week paddlers were amazed at the intricate buttressing of the cypress and tupelo and welcomed the shade from the majestic Overcup Oaks and Spruce Pines. Towards the end of the week, the famous Ogeechee Tupelo lined the banks – also known as Ogeechee Lime as earlier settlers used its fruit for a lime substitute. The beauty of the river inspired all and eased a few willow scrapes from the novice paddlers.


Ruth enjoying lunch with first time paddlers from Camp Creek Middle School.

IMG_20150619_190500338_HDRRuth not only worked with the teacher scholarship group but joined the AAS team in daily river monitoring. She was delighted to spend time with the two youngest team members and first time Paddle GA paddlers (more notable the daughters of some of the monitor team). On day five she led a group of brave first time paddlers from Camp Creek Middle School in Atlanta in an AAS training. They were serious about understanding watersheds and what they could do to make a difference – a delightful group of girls!

One great week! Special thanks to GRN and Ogeechee Riverkeeper for providing a wonderful opportunity.

Students learn photography, local history, pride at Augusta Communities in Schools’ camp

by Augusta Chronicle Staff Writer, Sean Gruber

See original article here.

It’s not often that spotting a water moccasin snake elicits screams of delight rather than fear, but for the 23 youths touring the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park, the rare sight was just another highlight of the Communities in Schools’ photography camp.

The middle school students spent Wednesday morning photographing wildlife, cypress trees and black water creeks, learning the history and natural features of the park as they traveled along trails and boardwalks. As the students eagerly snapped photos, many said they had never known Augusta could be “so beautiful.”

“I really enjoy the photography, but it’s also really given me a new look at my home,” Brooks Trollinger, 10, said. “I really see the greatness of God’s creation here, and now I can use a camera to help remember all of this.”

Creating a sense of pride in the Augusta community is the main goal of the “The World Around Us” week-long photography camp, which uses cameras and history lessons to link middle school students with their environment.

Funded by grants and organized jointly by the Communities in Schools and the Morris Museum of Art, the students are taught camera skills by local photographers, putting their new talents to use as they tour Augusta’s historical sites, cemeteries and parks. Executive Director Laurie Cook said the camp offers a view of Augusta that “many children don’t get to see.”

“It’s a great opportunity for all of these kids. Some of them have never really visited some of the sites we’re visiting this week. Some have told me they’ve never really crossed the river to visit some of the places around here,” Cook said. “They don’t know about the Cotton Exchange or the history of our local churches, for instance. They are amazed by some of the places they visit.”

The photographs taken by the campgoers will be archived, and some will be displayed in the Morris Museum’s Education Gallery.

Many of those attending the free camp enthusiastically embraced both their photography and history lessons.

Augusta resident Jolie Burdette said that she didn’t know what to expect when her parents signed her up, but it only took two days for her to realize she had joined “something special.”

“One of the historians we talked to earlier this week showed us pictures of historical sites as they were then and as they are now. You get to see how much things have changed here and how interesting this place really is,” Burdette said. “This park here is beautiful, and it’s so much fun taking pictures … I’m definitely coming back next year, and now I’m considering being a photographer as a job.”

WOW Workshop with EDS

WOW Workshop with EDS

By Ruth Mead

IMG_20150604_111737933 What happens when you get 7 science teachers from EDS and 2 Phinizy Center educators together for a day? Lots of fun!

On June 4, Aaliyah Ross and Ruth Mead joined 7 Episcopal Day School science teachers at their new Flowing Wells property and conducted a Wow! The Wonders of Wetlands curriculum workshop. Although the property was purchased to fulfill a need for a sporting complex, their dreams for an array of uses continue to expand. Some of these dreams include using the property as an outdoor learning center where the students can experience science live.

That’s where the Phinizy Center education department fits in. Located down the hill on the property are wetlands that border some of the headwaters for Rae’s Creek. As Wow! facilitators, we felt introducing a wetland curriculum would be a perfect start in getting teachers excited about getting students outside.

IMG_20150604_102721664The morning started with a quick introduction and few sample activities, then off to the wetlands we headed – soil auger and wetland plant keys in hand. Everyone suited up in chest waders then of course we had to let them try the waders out. We marched right into the wetland below the beaver dam – well – not really marching. It was more like sinking and we did – up to our knees. The soil was so mucky that it would not even stay in the auger. Once we pulled everyone back out, we worked on the edge keying out some herbaceous wetland plants.

IMG_20150604_112251769We would not give up though, so after a hike around the pond exploring different soils, we went back to the beaver pond but this time above the dam. Success! The soil auger went in and the soil that came out was most impressive – a solid black organic wetland soil. In fact, it was so gooey and jet black that we thought we had hit crude oil. The decomposing organic matter at Phinizy swamp gets washed towards the creek leaving behind mottled and gleyed mineral soils. In the beaver pond, the organics are trapped building up to make a true organic soil yet rich in clay.

IMG_20150604_143522144Back to the building for lunch and some indoor activities as we cooled off before heading outside for more engaging fun. The teachers formed 3 teams and we challenged each team to build a boat with the wetland plant material we had collected. The challenge was to float the boat across the pond carrying a handful of M & M’s. One team used the leaf from an Arrow Arum as a sail and this boat left all the others in the dust – or I should say at the water’s edge.

The day ended right on schedule. The teachers enjoyed the curriculum and were excited to begin scheduling outdoor learning experiences for their students. Next we hope to get them in Rae’s Creek for some stream ecology and Adopt-A-Stream (AAS) training.

Sounds fun? The Phinizy Center education group would be happy to conduct a teacher workshop for your school. We are facilitators for Wow! The Wonders of Wetlands, Project WET (water education for teachers), Healthy Water Healthy People, and The Urban Watershed, as well as GA AAS trainers.


Team Tallow: Working to Keep Phinizy Free from Invasive Species

Team Tallow: Working to Keep Phinizy Free from Invasive Species

By Ruth Mead

IMG_1984Benjamin Franklin is revered as a rich contributor to American History, and although he did many wonderful things, his introduction of a handful of exotic species is not one we are thankful for. In 1776, he introduced the first Chinese Tallowtree (also known as Popcorntree) to South Carolina as a cash crop. The waxy coating on the seeds is used for candle and soap making. Tallow may also be useful in biodiesel production as it is one of the most productive vegetable oil producing crops in the world – producing 20 times more oil per acre than soybeans! Tallowtree was reintroduced to the Gulf Coast states in the early 1900’s, once again as a cash crop that never made it.

IMG_1986Tallowtree in the Southeastern USA is now listed as one of The Nature Conservancy’s “America’s Least Wanted – The Dirty Dozen”. It is highly invasive, crowding and out competing native species to the point where Tallowtree can become a monoculture in the landscape it invades. Tallowtree is a prolific reproducer. One tree is capable of producing 100,000 seeds every year, most of which remain viable for several years! They can become sexually mature at just 3 years old – meaning they can flower and produce seed. Not only are they prolific seed producers, but roots readily develop shoots and they re-sprout from stumps vigilantly! This tree is such a bad boy that the Texas Department of Agriculture lists it as a noxious and invasive species making it illegal to sell, distribute or import into Texas!

IMG_1980So what do Tallowtree and Phinizy Swamp Nature Park have in common? For over a hundred years the land which is now Phinizy Swamp Nature Park was heavily farmed making it a disturbed site – a site altered from its natural state. Invasive species are known to repopulate disturbed sites, and Phinizy Swamp is no stranger to invasive species – we have more than our share. When I (Ruth Mead, Senior Environmental Educator for Phinizy Center for Water Sciences) first discovered the Swamp in 2000, it appeared to be Tallow free. By 2004, the area known as the Sparrow Field was in the early stages of old field succession. I saw the first Tallows there and quickly pulled them up. Later more would appear and Lois Stacey, birding field trip leader for Augusta – Aiken Audubon and an accomplished naturalist, would help me in the effort to keep Phinizy Tallow free.

So why pick Tallow over all the other invasive species? I spent 14 years in north Florida and some time in coastal South Carolina. Both places are overrun by Tallowtree and it almost seems hopeless to fight it. Moving to Augusta at the end of 1999, I realized Tallow did not have a strong hold here. I guess at that point I thought we could actually win the battle, and I hope we still can.

The workAs the Sparrow field grew up and I became immersed in field trip programs, I kind of let the battle with Tallow go. Several years ago, I was disappointed to discover it growing in the woods near Butler Creek near the Mayor’s Fish’n Hole, and I quickly pulled up all the trees I could find. During the annual River’s Alive cleanup in October of 2014, JP Moss (the youngest graduate of our Master Naturalist classes at Phinizy Swamp and rising freshman at Barry College) spent most of his time pulling up Tallow as opposed to picking up trash. It was truly a great river cleanup addition and admirable to see in a young naturalist.

Nothing could have made me happier than to have John Doughty, a recent graduate of our Master Naturalist class and talented nature printer, announce that he wanted to lead the Master Naturalist class on a Tallow removal at Phinizy. It brought new energy, so on May 21, five soldiers went to battle and Team Tallow was formed. We made great progress as you can see from the photos but we have a long way to go.

Team Tallow

Team Tallow’s goal is to meet once a month and conquer Tallow – one tree at a time. Who knows – once we accomplish our goal, maybe we will go for another one of “America’s Least Wanted”! Team Tallow’s next meeting is June 17 from 7 to 10am. Come join us!

What can you do? Remove Tallowtree from your yard and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Avoid planting non-native species, especially those known to be invasive. Join the battle!

Before & After

The Eastern Phoebe at Phinizy

The Eastern Phoebe at Phinizy

by Chalisa Fabillar

About two months ago, there was a flurry of feathers every time someone entered or exited the research building. The owners of said feathers never went far, just a few yards away to the bald cypress. There the small gray and brown birds would sit, bobbing their tails up and down. They were Eastern Phoebes, scientifically named Sayornis phoebe, and they had constructed a nest just outside our door. So exciting!


One of the eggs found under the nest.

Eastern Phoebes are a migratory flycatcher, having a diet composed of mostly flying insects. They spend winters in southern North America and Central America and migrate north for breeding. Once paired up, the males will spend their time defending his territory while the females work to build the nest. The nest can take anywhere from a few days up to two weeks to build and is made with mud, sticks, grass, moss, and bits of animals hair. Eggs require just over two weeks to incubate and the young are fledged in less than another three weeks.

In the case of our little phoebes, it only took about 7 weeks. Less than two months and they had built their nest, laid their eggs, hatched and fledged their young. Too fast, they grew up too darn fast!

Four baby phoebes in the crowded little nest.

Four baby phoebes in the crowded little nest.

Phoebes are known to reuse their nests and can have multiple clutches each year so perhaps I’ll get lucky enough to see more baby phoebes this summer. I hope so because honestly, I miss seeing them. Seeing how the young birds changed so quickly was a daily reminder of how quickly things happen and change in nature. (Update: They were gone for a few weeks, but there is another Eastern Phoebe using the nest again!)

From a historical perspective the Eastern Phoebe is very special. They are the first species of birds to be banded in North America. In 1803, the famous birdwatcher John James Audubon tied a piece of string the legs of a few Eastern Phoebes on his property. The next year he was able to confirm the migration and return of two of those birds by the threads still attached to their legs. How cool is that!?!

Lagrangian Sampling? Application to Environmental Studies in an Ever-changing System

Lagrangian Sampling? Application to Environmental Studies in an Ever-changing System

by Matt Erickson


Figure 1. Research scientists Matt Erickson (left) and Jason Moak (right) measure discharge using a velocimeter.

One of our poster presentations at the Georgia Water Resources Conference this year was about a research project to find the source of high bacteria counts in one of our local streams. The focus of this presentation was the unique sampling scheme we used to collect water samples called “lagrangian sampling.” Prior to the project, we had collected water samples at different places on the stream to find the place where bacteria counts were highest. We found high counts in multiple places, but no one site consistently had higher counts than all the other sites. We determined the source of bacteria was not confined to one specific location, but instead, appeared to be spread out across a large area. This is known as a “non-point source.”

Figure 2. A data sonde, suspended from a tripod, measures dye concentration in the water.

Figure 2. A data sonde, suspended from a tripod, measures dye concentration in the water.

To better understand where the bacteria were coming from, we applied a lagrangian sampling approach. The basic idea is that you collect water samples from the same “packet” of water as it moves downstream. The way we do that is by adding a special dye to the creek that we can track with a measuring device. When we detect the dye downstream, we know we are seeing the same packet of water and it’s time to collect our sample. The more traditional approach would also involve taking water samples from different places in the creek, but without targeting the same packet of water. Lagrangian sampling takes a lot more time and effort, but we think the data we collect this way is far more valuable. When we take samples from a moving body of water like a stream or river, that water sample has been influenced by the conditions it experienced on its path to our location. If you sample different packets of water, they may have experienced different conditions. By sampling the same packet of water, we can compare a water sample with another from a site upstream, and know that any differences are a result of something happening between the two sample locations.

Figure 3. The amount of bacteria increases at a consistent rate as you move downstream.

Figure 3. The amount of bacteria increases at a consistent rate as you move downstream.

Experience has shown us that bacterial counts tend be highly variable, even among samples from the same times and places. A lagrangian-style sampling approach for bacteria helped to reduce variability from confounding factors, and in this case, produced a surprising result. We found an extremely strong correlation between the amount of bacteria present and the distance downstream of each site. If there were some entry point of bacteria to the stream, you would expect to see high counts at that point, and lower counts moving further downstream. What we saw was the amount of bacteria increased at a consistent rate as you move downstream. What does that mean about the location of the source and how it’s being transported into the stream? One hypothesis is that the bacteria could be living in the stream bottom and the streambed itself is the source. There are studies in the scientific literature suggesting that bacteria can survive in sediments longer than previously thought. The bacteria in question are not necessarily pathogenic (disease-causing) themselves, but are often used as indicators of potential health hazards due to waste contamination. This would beg the question, “Are these good indicators of contamination and health risk?” The results of this study have given us new perspectives and unique insights, and in this case may have revealed more questions than answers.


Figure 4. The peak dye concentration reaches a sampling site.



by Aaliyah Ross

IMG_1765On a beautiful first Friday in May, Phinizy education staff joined other local environmental educators to hold the 15th annual Eco-Meet competition at USC-Aiken’s Ruth Patrick Science Education Center. The Eco-Meet is an environmental science competition for middle school students in the CSRA. Teams of 3-4 students compete at six hands-on testing stations; this year’s topics included composting, herpetology, drinking water and wastewater treatment, bird migration, wild turkeys, and endangered species.

The event is organized by the CSRA Environmental Science Education Cooperative IMG_1763(ESEC), which is composed of non-profits, businesses, and governmental agencies committed to environmental education and stewardship in the CSRA. Member organizations, such as the Phinizy Center, Ruth Patrick Science Education Center, Silver Bluff Audubon Sanctuary, Watson-Brown Foundation, Reed Creek Nature Center, and McDuffie Environmental Education Center, contribute to Eco-Meet by creating study materials and hands-on tests aligned with Georgia and South Carolina academic standards.

This year’s competition drew 80 students from 12 schools throughout the region, including Aiken, Richmond, Columbia, and Jefferson counties. Many schools have participated for several years. Others, such as Kennedy Middle School in Aiken County and Murphey Middle School in Richmond County, competed for the very first time!

IMG_1775In addition to testing stations, Eco-Meet includes an optional team project competition. This year’s challenge was “Design the Green City of the Future”— using recycled and scrap materials to build a model of an eco-friendly city. A handful of teams eagerly accepted this challenge and incorporated many creative elements to make their cities “green”, including solar-powered roadways and high-tech water treatment facilities. Great job, future city planners!

After a busy day examining bird feathers and analyzing watershed models, participants were treated to pizza and an entertaining live animal show. The day ended with an awards ceremony to recognize the highest-scoring teams. Dr. Jim Murzynowski of Tutt Middle School was also awarded Eco-Meet Coach of the Year.

The next Eco-Meet will be held on May 6, 2016 at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park. Each year’s event gets better and better; we hope to make this the best Eco-Meet yet! Contact the Education department to get your middle school involved!


American Shad

American Shad

by Jason Moak, Research Scientist

Shad on Savannah - 20150528 (4)

Spring is here and so are the American shad! The American shad (Alosa sapidissima) is the largest species of fish in the Herring family (Clupeidae), and is found all along the Atlantic Coast of North America. Prior to the World War II, American shad were considered one of the most valuable food fish in the United States. In 2002, Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee published an entire book chronicling the history of the American Shad: “The Founding Fish.”

Adults of American shad are typically 3-6 years old and are between 16 to 21 inches long. These fish are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their lives in the ocean, but migrate up freshwater rivers to spawn.   Southern populations of Amamerican_shaderican shad only spawn once, and die shortly afterwards. In the Savannah River, American shad can usually be found in between February and May, when water temperatures are between 14 and 21 degrees Celsius (57 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit).

North American commercial fisheries for American shad have existed since the 1800’s, but catches have declined sharply since the early 20th century. Numerous factors led to the decline of this species, including the construction of dams that blocked access to historical spawning grounds, habitat destruction, overfishing, and pollution. Efforts to recover populations of American shad include enhancement through stocking of hatchery-reared fish, construction of upstream fish passage structures at dams, reduction of pollution, and limits on commercial and recreational fishing.

One interesting method of helping shad recovery, similar to a fish elevator, is used at New Savannah Bluff Lock & Dam, the last dam on the Savannah River between Augusta and the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, based on recommendations from the South Carolina DNR, operates the locks to allow fish to pass upstream of the dam during spawning season. This has been accomplished by allowing water to flow into the lock chamber, which serves to attract the American shad. Then, the downstream lock doors are closed, the lock is filled with water until it is level with the upstream river, and the upstream lock doors are opened, allowing the fish to swim out and upstream into the Augusta Shoals where there is a large amount of ideal spawning habitat.

Despite large declines in Savannah River American shad populations, restoration is currently considered to be sustainable. A study in the early 2000’s documented that half of tagged shad were able to move upstream through the lock and estimated that the population of shad that reached the Lock and Dam may be higher than 200,000 fish.