If you haven’t been in the horse district since last spring, you may be in for a surprise. For decades, there has been a problem with storm water drainage around Whitney Field. It was a problem that would go unnoticed in years with drought conditions. But when rain has been abundant, the field itself has been soggy, and backyards and basements in surrounding houses have flooded. In 2008, there was enough rain that Whitney Field itself became essentially unplayable, with turf so wet it would come up in sheets when polo ponies stopped quickly.
At the end of May, the Aiken City Council approved a plan to improve the drainage in the area by clearing brush and trees, cleaning out the old drainage ditches that surround the field and installing drains to shunt the water into a series of catch basins and retention areas. There was an existing drainage system at Whitney Field, apparently built in the 1940s, that included ditches and a network of pipes. According to Larry Morris, who is the director of Public Works Administration and Engineering for the city, that system had hardly been touched since that time and was no longer operating.
“All the ditches were full of undergrowth and trees,” he says. “It wasn’t percolating well. We went in there and removed the bushes and a number of trees. They were big trees, because they had been getting a lot of water and they grew well. But they can’t have been that old. I have a picture of the place taken in the 1930s and there was not one tree beside the polo field.”
The city’s crews removed enough brush to increase the size of the sand track next to the polo field by about a third. This had a dual purpose: not only did it help clear the ground for the new drainage ditches, it also opened up the area so that young horses that train there will have a better view of what is going on around them. According to Morris, the Whitney Trustees, who own the property, asked to have some extra clearing done for this reason.
“When horses know something is moving behind a bush, they are going to shy more if they can’t really see it,” says Morris.
Work on the Whitney Field area started in June. Although the schedule called for it to be completed by Labor Day, there is still a fair amount of work to be done. Heavy rainfall throughout the month of August slowed the job down by keeping the drainage ditches full and making it impossible to do significant work on the drainage pipes. But with a few dry days, the project should be back on track.
“We just ask people to be patient with us,” says Morris. “We’re working on it!”