On a sunny patch of open space along the Congaree River in Columbia, the eighth annual River Rocks Festival brought hundreds of residents out last weekend to enjoy the spring weather and learn about the conservation efforts of the region’s Congaree Riverkeeper and their partners. In between acts, a man took the stage to pump up the crowd.
“So, who here is here to listen to some awesome music?” he shouted, to applause. He continued the survey, eliciting more cheers for those in attendance to drink craft beer, before asking, “Who’s here to celebrate clean water and healthy rivers?” More applause.
“That one should always be the loudest,” he said.
This was riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who spearheads the annual event with his small staff and a group of dedicated volunteers. He said that while many people come out to enjoy the nice weather and live music acts, the community is also in tune with the larger purpose of the event: to raise awareness and financial support for one of the area’s most precious resources.
In addition to live music, the festival brings in a number of partner organizations, such as the Gills Creek Watershed Association and the city’s park rangers, to present educational activities designed to teach both adults and kids about environmental topics like aquatic life, pollution, and conservation.
“Really what it is at the end of the day, is a celebration of our rivers and our organization’s work to protect them, and a great way to get people involved and have a good time,” said Stangler.
Bill Stangler has been the riverkeeper for over six years, and is one of just two people on the organization’s staff.
“I do everything from the day-to-day management of a nonprofit to organizing volunteer cleanups, collecting water quality samples, building legal cases against polluters, picking fights at the state house, and everything in between—and planning a music festival!”
But keeping the festival up and going has been a real fight for the past three years. It used to be held in Riverfront Park, on the banks of the Columbia Canal. In October 2015, severe flooding caused the canal’s levee to breach, flooding the amphitheater which was a regular site of community events like this one. While Riverfront Park is almost entirely reopened now, getting festival equipment to the old site is still too cumbersome because of the recovery still in progress.
“We had to move around a little bit. After the 2015 flood, we sort of became an orphan event. We lost our site at Riverfront Park when the canal broke, and the stage got washed away from the old amphitheater site, so we’ve been bouncing around,” said Stangler.
For the last two years, River Rocks has been relocated to a site near Founders Park, where you can still see the river, but not as clearly as at Riverfront.
The effects of the canal’s breach aren’t limited to the festival. The canal is one of just two sources of drinking water for the city of Columbia. Quick work by city engineers and the S.C. National Guard to erect a temporary dam above the breach ensured that the city’s water supply didn’t suffer, and Assistant City Manager of Columbia Water Clint Shealy says that it’s a good, albeit short-term, fix.
“Right now we’ve got what I’ve coined to be a long-term temporary solution, with a rock dam along the canal. We feel very confident in that; it was engineered very quickly, but it’s solid.”
The city is waiting on confirmation of funding arrangements from FEMA, will which help determine when and how the repairs are completed. Because the canal is also the site of a hydropower plant, many other organizations are involved as well, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. This further complicates the canal recovery process.
“I want our citizens to know that we’re going to have a long-term solution to our water supply issue here in Columbia, even if we get zero dollars. We’re committed, but the level of funding that we get will certainly impact how quickly that solution can be implemented.”
While Shealy says there’s not yet a definite timeline for the permanent repairs, Stangler expects it to be at least a few years before River Rocks Festival can return to Riverfront Park. In the meantime, the Congaree Riverkeeper plans to carry on with the mission of bringing Columbia good music and environmental education.