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Shallow roots and deep issues with water and soil in South Carolina

Stately trees are not always the best fit for shallow soil. And in regions like South Carolina's Piedmont, there's plenty of both.
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
Stately trees are not always the best fit for shallow soil. And in regions like South Carolina's Piedmont, there's plenty of both.

As I write this, a beautiful, tall tree at the edge of my yard awaits the ax. I don’t want to take the tree down; but I know it’s coming down soon enough, on its own or with help, and I prefer to be proactive.

I mention this because it shows the inevitable outcome of tall trees – that are all over my neighborhood – rooted in shallow ground. Lance Brewington, a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and who’s based in Laurens, says that in the Piedmont, “roots can't penetrate deep into the subsoil because of an impervious rock contact.”

That’s a sciency way of saying Rock Hill is really appropriately named. Anywhere from 40 to 60 inches below the soil – and in some areas, even shallower – there is rock that tree roots cannot penetrate. So, Brewington says, they burrow as far as they can and then start running along the rock surface.

A setup like that means the tallest trees that need the deepest roots to withstand the soaking rains and heavy winds of a South Carolina winter don’t have them.

A lot of places in South Carolina have this problem. And it’s just one of the ways good soil management can help save the day. As a soil scientist with NRCS (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture), Brewington says city planners and developers need to understand what lies below, especially because South Carolina is growing so quickly.

More people moving to the state means more development, which means more roads and impervious surfaces, which means more area where rainfall runs off into sewers or evaporates instead of soaking into the ground.

And just like the way tall pines and soft, shallow ground can lead to literally cascading problems down the line, poor drainage from rainfall can lead to drier ground that can contribute to drought, flooding… and wildfire – three things the West Coast is coping with on tremendous scale right now.

“Our wet part of the year is December, January, February, March,” Brewington says. “Then it tapers off with the rainfall, so, summertime is probably the worst because you get the dry spells, the heat, you get some wind in there and then it could take off.”

The “it” that could take off is wildfire. At the moment, there’s plenty of water soaking into the ground in most of the state. But the westernmost edge of the Upstate, according to the Jan. 11 U.S. Drought Monitor, isn’t quite as healthy. Parts of eight counties are abnormally dry. Parts of two, Abbeville and Anderson, have areas of moderate drought; and Abbeville County has a pocket of severe drought.

So it isn’t just developed areas that need good water management. But good water management, says Brewington, is key to understand.

He says that the Web Soil Survey by the NRCS is a good place to start for understanding what is going on with the soil where you live (because South Carolina has a wide variety of soil types, and each one has unique needs and characteristics).

“You can draw an area of interest around your property,” Brewington says. “You can get interpretations for timber and stuff like that. And you can read that soil type in there and see … if it's got a restrictive feature in it.”

A restrictive feature such as, don’t plant giant trees in shallow earth.

On the positive side, it turns out that these mushy winters months we get are actually pretty good for food growers.

“We get rain at the perfect time for the farmers,” Brewington says. “When they're planting their crops in March, our soil is saturated. The water is there for the plants.”

Compare this to Alabama, where Brewington says similar amounts of rain fall over any given year, just not in those crucial winter months that help keep the soil damp enough for planting good crops in the early spring.

So we do get a lot of drenching winter weather, but all that water is better than the alternative.

What Brewington wants everyone to know is that the Natural Resources Conservation Service is out there and ready to help figure out how to best manage all that water. Doing so now, he says, is what will keep a rapidly growing state from dealing with problems at tremendous scale somewhere down the line.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.