Fish, most of them the length of an outstretched hand outstretched, seem to know Tea Hoffmann. They form a school at the sound of footsteps on her dock. They wait in the shallows for morsels of cereal or bread. And shallower and shallower they are.
“I’m all for people selling their property, making money and all of that,” said Hoffmann, one of six homeowners with docks on a small cove off Mill Creek. “I do not want them just clearing everything and making this cove fill up with dirt.”
Hoffmann moved to the area five years ago, but she hadn’t seen anything like what she did Monday. Rain fell, and water began rushing from a construction site at the head of the cove. Only it wasn’t just water. Hoffmann photographed and videoed muddy water pouring into the lake.
“That’s the first day that it happened,” Hoffmann said. “It even stained the rocks, it was so bad.”
Apartments have been under construction just beside Senator Road for a few months. When it rains, water runs into the lake.
But when Hoffmann saw the mud still coming the following day, she went to take a closer look. The site has sediment retention fences. She believes gravel from the gullywasher knocked over or damaged the fences, while a huge heap of loose dirt sat on the lake end of the property.
She doesn’t believe the builder meant for the mud to reach the lake.
“I just didn’t think they were ready for the kind of downpour we had,” Hoffmann said.
But the impact was done. And it wasn’t alone.
York County Councilwoman Allison Love said unrelated repair work going on Thursday morning at nearby Bonum Road was “obviously the result of runoff.” Machines were down at the end where D.R. Horton is building, moving soil right beside the water.
“I am told this is permitted remediation by the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers,” Love said. “They are within 10 feet of the lake.”
During a drive down Bonum on Thursday afternoon, several spots were visible where standing or streaming water ran orange. Large pipes led to ditches, into coves where the lake had a brown or orange tint until clearing up deeper into the lake.
Ellen Goff is a long-time volunteer and board member with the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, and she sits on the Lake Wylie Marine Commission. She went out Thursday to look around the area where Hoffman reported issues. In her foundation role, Goff routinely hears about and reports sedimentation problems.
“York County ordinances and regulations allow this kind of pollution to happen — clear cutting and mass grading on very large tracts is extremely difficult to control, even with all the best management practices in place,” she said.
Even when land developers do what they can to fix problems as they arise, the impact is already there.
“The recent rain events we have gotten, particularly Monday night, have caused runoff from the D.R. Horton site and others,” Goff said. “Horton is trying to do the right thing and what it can to address conditions as they arise.”
An inch of rain fell Monday, about a quarter of the amount that typically falls each August. The coming week has several days with a chance of more thunderstorms.
Goff sees runoff into creeks and the lake as the same type of growth issue as traffic and public safety.
“The county has stated that one of their top priorities is to control the growth that it has approved and now has to deal with,” she said. “It can’t happen fast enough.”
Runoff has all sorts of impacts. Fertilizers, chemical and other material gets into the same lake used for public drinking water. Animals in the water can suffer. Coves become shallower to the point where, at times, they’re inaccessible for boats or swimming.
For people living along the water, the risk of property value loss can be severe. The difference between selling a home where a boat can launch into Lake Wylie or it can’t could mean a lot of money.
“It’s not going to take a lot of dirt to fill this in,” Hoffmann said.
Yet for many residents the concern is now. They live on the lake because they want to enjoy it.
The dock nearest the head of Hoffmann’s cove has a rope marking off shallow areas for boaters who may venture too far in fishing. The end of Hoffmann’s dock usually sits about 6 to 8 feet deep, when water levels are up as they are now.
“When we had the drought,” she said, “the boat was on the ground. They all were.”
Goff and Love live not far from Hoffmann. Residents say there are steps that can be taken. They include rule changes on how land is developed, how projects get approved and project density, even to where on site builders mound up loose dirt, regardless of fencing.
“As long as that dirt is there, it’s going to keep doing that,” Hoffmann said.
She looks down at the small fish. Some might call them bait, with large catfish known to swim nearby.
Hoffmann enjoys feeding them. She likes how they expect her, how they show up and wait for her. How, when it hasn’t rained in a while and the lake is clear, she can see them easily through a thin stretch of water.
“I just don’t want it to be ruined,” Hoffmann said.