No, we’re not making a movie. But, we are building a program to regularly test the “swimability” of several local creeks and hotspots for activities like swimming, SUPing, sailing, and sometimes just floating.  This week we wrapped up an important step in the development our Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program: the Readiness Review. Read about the Readiness Review kick-off here.

The Readiness Review allowed our program staff, field investigators, and laboratory analysts to practice with the quality control and quality assurance protocols we’ve implemented to ensure the program produces high quality data. Check out the photos from our sample runs over at Facebook here, here, and here. We also put together a Storify to capture live tweets from our field investigators. Check that out here.

We are very pleased with the performance of our team and are grateful for those who have helped get us this far. Based on our Readiness Review work, we are confident we can routinely meet the quality control and quality assurance protocols we’ve implemented for the program. What this means for you is an easily accessible source for good quality data about the level of Enterococcus bacteria present in your favorite tidal creek or recreational area.

The Readiness Review also provided us with preliminary look into what to expect from our data.  We collected 36 samples from 12 sites over three weeks.  See where we sampled here:

 
View Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Sites 2013 in a larger map

Although the dataset is very small a few observations are apparent:

  • Bacteria counts were highest in samples collected within 24 hours of significant rainfall.
  • Bacteria counts in tidal creek samples were higher than samples collected in the Ashley River and Charleston Harbor.

This is an exciting time for us here at Charleston Waterkeeper. Once we have all our “i’s” doted and “t’s” crossed we’ll begin publishing our data for you here and via the Swim Guide mobile app and website.  Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We promise you won’t miss out on the data you need to make an informed decision about when and where to engage in water-based recreational activity.

Charleston Waterkeeper would like to reassure our supporters, friends, colleagues and fellow citizens of our continued commitment to protecting Charleston’s right to clean water.

This March, upon notification that our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status had been automatically revoked, Charleston Waterkeeper immediately began working with our legal counsel and CPA to correct the matter. The revocation occurred because we did not understand our obligation to file summary tax filings retroactively after our 501(c)(3) designation was granted in 2011.

We are confident that we are taking all necessary actions to remedy our oversight and are optimistic that our status as a tax-exempt organization will be reinstated. Until then, all donations to Charleston Waterkeeper will be tax-deductible under our fiscal sponsor, the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Charleston Waterkeeper continues to operate as an incorporated nonprofit organization, and while we work to resolve this issue, we remain focused on developing our programs and activities.

Last week, we began the readiness review phase of our Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program and expect to launch the full program soon. We have also been working with a number of key partners on a long-term study of bacteria levels in Upper Inlet Creek.

As part of our partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Clean Vessel Act Program, Charleston Waterkeeper has purchased a pumpout boat and will begin operating a Mobile Pumpout Program this summer. The boat, currently being readied for the program, will allow us to provide timely and convenient pumpout services to recreational boaters in need of emptying their holding tanks–tanks that may otherwise be discharged into our local waterways.

Our Permit Watchdog Program is currently screening 60 local permit holders for wastewater treatment performance issues. This program will also provide public comments on several permits that are up for reissuance as a result of the newly established dissolved oxygen limits for the Charleston Harbor.

We value your continued support, and know that while we work to resolve this issue, we continue to focus on protecting your right to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.

Please do not hesitate to contact us directly with any additional questions or concerns.

 

After Tuesday’s heavy rains Sullivan’s Island experienced a sanitary sewer overflow, or SSO for short.  You can read more about it here.  A SSO occurs when raw sewage overflows the system of pipes and sewers designed to collect it and transport it to a sewage treatment plant.

EPA estimates that as many as 75,000 SSOs occur nationwide every year.  SSOs can occur for many reasons including: blockages, line brakes, vandalism, and inflow and infiltration or rainwater.  In the last 3 months 17 SSOs occurred in our watershed.  Check where they occurred here:


View Sanitary Sewer Overflows in a larger map

More than half of the SSOs in our watershed in the last 3 months were caused by inflow and infiltration of rainwater after heavy rain events.  Your local water and sewer authority should have a program designed to find and correct the defects that allow rainwater into the sewage collection system.  These programs cost a lot of money.  As a member of the community we encourage you to support these efforts because they help to protect our swimmable and harvestable waterways.

Today Charleston Waterkeeper officially kicked off a Readiness Review for our Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program. The program will regularly sample local tidal creeks and other areas frequently used for activities like swimming, stand up paddleboarding, sailing, and kayaking. Once operational the program will publish data every thursday so you can compare the results to South Carolina’s standards for safe swimming. In other words, we’re determining the “swimability” of our local waterways.

 

As part of our Readiness Review, over the next several weeks we’ll be sampling every Wednesday morning. The samples will be analyzed at the College of Charleston’s Hydrochemistry Research Laboratory. The Readiness Review allows our program staff, field investigators, and laboratory analysts to practice with the the quality control and quality assurance protocols we’ve implemented to ensure the program produces high quality data. Check out the pictures from today’s sample run over at Facebook.

The data produced during the Readiness Review is for our informational purposes only and it is not reliable enough to publish. Please stay turned to our website and Facebook and Twitter accounts. If you do, we promise you won’t miss it when we start publishing data.

Astute readers of our blog will recall that last fall we conducted a Pilot Study. Check out a few sample runs here, here, here, and here.  The Pilot Study helped us determine how to wisely allocate our time and resources to efficiently conduct the Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program. During the winter and spring we focused our attention on developing a Quality Assurance Project Plan and a laboratory Quality Assurance Manual. Now that those documents are complete we’ve turned to the Readiness Review. The final step is launching the full program.

Charleston Waterkeeper is proud of the progress we’ve made and we are looking forward to providing you with high quality data about the “swimability” of many of our communities’ favorite local waterways. We could not do this work without the support of the College of Charleston’s Masters of Environmental Studies Program and the support of all of you. A big thank you from all of us here at Charleston Waterkeeper.

This is a guest blog post by Jillian Phillips.  Jill is a graduate student in the College of Charleston’s Masters of Environmental Studies Program.  Follow Jill on Twitter @jillmarie318.

Charleston Waterkeeper, the College of Charleston’s Masters of Environmental Studies Program, Mount Pleasant Waterworks, and the Town of Mount Pleasant have teamed up to investigate fecal contamination in Upper Inlet Creek.  Upper Inlet Creek is a tidal creek located between Sullivan’s Island and Mount Pleasant above the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.  The area is an important habitat for a variety of estuarine life and harbors many commercial and recreational shellfish beds.

DHEC’s water quality data indicate high levels of the fecal indicator bacteria fecal coliform bacteria are present in Upper Inlet Creek.  Accordingly, the creek is listed on South Carolina’s 303(d) list of impaired waterways.  DHEC is scheduled to develop and implement a total maximum daily load, or TMDL for short, for fecal coliform by 2016.  A TMDL is simply a plan to restore the water quality of Upper Inlet Creek.

Meanwhile, DHEC is working to transition fecal indicator bacteria from fecal coliform to Enterococcus.  Enterococcus is considered a better fecal indicator bacteria for marine waters because it survives better than fecal coliform. To help inform this transition, the Upper Inlet Creek Project will quantify bacterial water quality in the creek using both fecal coliform and Enterococcus.

Identifying sources of fecal contamination is often difficult.  Sources include stormwater, human inputs, and wildlife.  To help narrow down the long list of potential sources, the Upper Inlet Creek Project will employ an optical brightener analysis.  Optical brighteners are a component in most laundry detergents and can help differentiate between human and animal sources of fecal contamination.  Both the bacteriological and optical brightener analyses are being conducted at the water quality lab at Mount Pleasant Waterworks.

Our first sampling run took place in early March, aboard the Charleston Waterkeeper’s boat the Lady C.  We’ll sample once per month for an entire year in order to produce a comprehensive dataset.  We hope the data set will be used to make future water quality management decisions regarding Upper Inlet Creek and to ensure the health and quality of Charleston’s waterways.

A big thanks to Jill for posting this overview of the Upper Inlet Creek Project. Charleston Waterkeeper is proud to work with the College of Charleston’s Masters of Environmental Studies Program, Mount Pleasant Waterworks, and the Town of Mount Pleasant on this project.  Stay tuned to Charleston Waterkeeper’s  Twitter (using the hashtag #UIS) and Facebook accounts for updates and progress!

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is built upon a foundation of public participation in water quality protection. Making use of the CWA’s public participation provisions and other laws, like the Freedom of Information Act, is a big part of our work here at Charleston Waterkeeper. This past week we received a response from DHEC to comments we submitted late last year regarding the Revised Charleston Harbor Dissolved Oxygen TMDL. So what’s a TMDL? Why did we comment on it? Why are we writing about it now? Read on.

A Quick History Lesson

In the 1990s scientists discovered the Charleston Harbor estuary frequently experienced low levels of dissolved oxygen (DO). The low DO levels meant that much of the estuary failed to meet state water quality standards for dissolved oxygen. Low levels of DO threatened the health of fish and other aquatic species. Research revealed the problem was due to both natural conditions and point source discharges from NPDES permit holders.

This triggered DHEC’s obligation under the Clean Water Act to develop a DO total maximum daily load, or TMDL for short. A TMDL is a plan to cap the total discharge of dissolved oxygen demanding pollutants to help the estuary meet its water quality standard for DO. The cap is then divided among all sources of oxygen demanding pollutants.

To set the cap, DHEC and scientists attempted to develop a computer model that incorporated the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando Rivers and the Charleston Harbor. However, the computers available at the time were not powerful enough to run the model. DHEC ultimately developed two TMDLs, one for the Ashley River and another for the Cooper and Wando Rivers and the Charleston Harbor.

Another Acronym Gets Involved

The TMDLs required NPDES permit holders to achieve a 60% reduction in discharges of oxygen demanding pollutants. DHEC and permit holders agreed to implement the reductions in two phases. The first phase was implemented in most permits by 2003 (a few permit holders challenged implementation in court). Shortly afterward, the Cooper River Water Users Association, a coalition of NPDES permit holders working through the Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG), offered to fund development of a “3D” model that would incorporate the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando Rivers and the Charleston Harbor.

DHEC agreed to work with the BCDCOG and the Cooper River Water Users Association on development of a 3D water quality model to inform implementation of the second phase of reductions. Two environmental engineering firms, Tetra Tech and Jordan, Jones, and Goulding, completed the 3D model and delivered it to DHEC in 2008. Afterwards, DHEC began development of a revised TMDL, combining and updating the Ashley River TMDL and the Cooper and Wando Rivers and Charleston Harbor TMDL.

In October 2012, DHEC issued public notice of its revision and published a draft of the revised TMDL for public comment. Charleston Waterkeeper requested an extension of the 30 day comment period and filed a Freedom of Information Act request in order to review the documentation contained in DHEC’s files regarding development of the revised TMDL.

After reviewing the draft revised TMDL, 3D modeling report, and DHEC’s TMDL file we developed several concerns regarding the provisions for public participation and how the TMDL accounted for stormwater inputs. We submitted our comments to DHEC in late December 2012. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the EPA also submitted comments.

TMDLs are Complicated

This lengthy narrative highlights the simple fact that TMDL development is difficult. Unfortunately, this also presents a significant barrier to public participation. For instance, the TMDL document itself is forty-three pages long. DHEC’s TMDL file contains thousands of pages of technical reports, scientific studies, correspondence, and notes. The 3D modeling report requires an environmental engineering background and experience with water quality modeling to fully understand.

That’s why the work of groups like Charleston Waterkeeper is so important. Our work lowers the barrier to public participation. We were able to use the power of the law to review DHEC’s files, extend the public comment period, and devote resources to reviewing the TMDL and its supporting materials to ensure the public’s right to clean water is adequately protected. Without this work the public would lack a voice in the TMDL process.

DHEC takes public comments seriously and considers and responds to each comment. In response to our comments DHEC added language to the TMDL clarifying how stormwater inputs were accounted for in the TMDL. DHEC also added an explicit statement outlining how public notice and comment are handled when the revised TMDL is implemented and reallocated in the future. Charleston Waterkeeper is proud to play a role in development of the revised TMDL. We believe our water quality is best protected when DHEC, permit holders, and the public are actively engaged in the TMDL process.

Join us this Saturday between 12-4PM by Colonial Lake for our Second Annual Great Oyster Point Runoff. Between a relay race on Colonial Lake, public paddling, gear demos, workshops, local oysters, food trucks, and live music, we’re certain there’ll be a bit of something for everyone!

Visit oysterpoint.org for more information and to register a team for the relay race.

On this election day, we can’t help but reflect on our rights as citizens. One of the most fundamental freedoms we hold dear at Charleston Waterkeeper is our right to clean water.

For the past few weeks, as part of GIVE 444, we’ve featured photos urging the protection of our right to blankable water (i.e. swimmable, playable, fly fishable, etc.).

Today, we’re featuring our first GIVE 444 ambassador: Rhett L. Boyd, Jr., founder of Rogue Wave Surf Shop. We asked Rhett what clean water means to him, and here’s his story…

Clean water is pure joy. I love to drink it, swim in it, and surf it. Many of my favorite memories are of crisp fall morning surf sessions. I’ve built my life and business around the tides, swell patterns, and waves our local beach communities offer. The life that I know and love is based around clean water. It’s important to protect our waterways to provide the same enjoyment for future generations. My son rode his first wave with me this summer, and I want to make sure that he is able to enjoy the ocean, creeks, and rivers to the fullest. We are blessed and must take responsibility for caring for our local environment and the gift of clean water.

Join us and Rhett to help “Protect your right to surfable water.” Become one of the 400 donors by donating $40 today to Charleston Waterkeeper at GIVE444.org.

This past Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. We’re celebrating the act’s big 4-0 by highlighting the ways we use our local waterways and our shared responsibility for protecting those uses.  We’ll also be featuring some of the work we do, utilizing the Clean Water Act’s tools, to protect the quality of our local waterways.

First up: lets look at how the Clean Water Act protects and improves the quality of our local waterways. The Clean Water Act is revolutionary because it devised a two part system to attack water pollution.  The first part deals with pollution at the source where it is created and discharged. [Stay tuned for more on this]  The second part deals with the in-stream water quality of local waterways and is the subject of this post.

Water Quality Standards

The Ashley/Cooper River Basin a/k/a the Charleston Harbor Watershed

Water quality standards are the foundation for protection of in-stream water quality.  In South Carolina, DHEC is responsible for developing and maintaining our water quality standards.  Simply put, water quality standards are goals for the in-stream water quality of a waterway.  They have three parts: (1) a designated use, (2) water quality criteria, and (3) antidegradation rules.

A “designated use” is an officially recognized human or ecological use for a particular waterway.  For example, DHEC classifies recreation as a designated use of Shem Creek.  Other designated uses include protection and propagation of fish and shellfish, public water supply, and agricultural and industrial uses.  A single section of a waterway may have more than one designated use, and different sections may have different uses.  Every waterway must have at least one designated use.

All designated uses must be protected.  DHEC accomplishes this by defining the “water quality criteria,” or the level of water quality, necessary to protect each designated use.  Water quality criteria are set using data and scientific judgment about the impact of water pollution on each designated use.  They can be numeric limits on the amount of a pollutant or a narrative description of the desired water quality.

Existing water quality must be maintained.  The primary tools for maintaining water quality are “antidegradation rules.” These rules are designed to minimize the impact of new or expanding sources of pollution on in-stream water quality.  Properly developed and implemented antidegradation rules can protect existing water quality from deterioration.

Impaired Waterways

Water quality standards are essential for protecting our right to clean water.  But merely setting goals for water quality is not enough.  That’s why the Clean Water Act requires each state to develop a list of waterways that do not meet water quality standards.

This list, known as the 303(d) list, requires states to review existing water quality data and determine which waterways do not support their designated uses.  These waterways are known as “impaired waterways.”  Each state develops a 303(d) list every 2 years.  In South Carolina, DHEC develops our 303(d) list.  According to the last 303(d) list, approximately 41% of waterways statewide are listed as impaired.

The most recent data available for our area indicates there are 102 impaired waterways in the Ashley/Cooper River Basin.  That means the quality of the water in 102 of our local waterways makes them unfit for their designated use. The impacted uses in our area are highlighted in the pie chart below.

These 4 designated uses are impacted by a number of different “impairments” or pollutants.  The high levels (or low levels in the case of dissolved oxygen) of these pollutants make waterways unfit for their designated uses. A single waterway can have more than one impairment impacting more than one designated use.  The impairments for our area are reflected in the bar graph below.
More than half of the impaired waterways in our area are impaired for fecal coliform. Fecal coliform is an “indicator bacteria” which points to the possible presence of fecal pollution.  Fecal pollution is exactly what it sounds like and comes from many different sources.  It impacts recreational and shellfishing uses of our waterways.  Fortunately, DHEC regularly monitors local shellfish beds for potential contamination and warns the pubic and shellfish harvesters.

Twenty-one percent of the impaired waterways are impaired for low dissolved oxygen. Dissolved oxygen is simply oxygen dissolved in water.  Just as we need air to breath, fish and other aquatic life need dissolved oxygen for respiration.  A wide variety of pollutants lower dissolved oxygen levels when they are discharged to our waterways.

Ten percent of the impaired waterways are impaired for high levels of mercury. One source of mercury is coal burning power plants.  As coal is burned mercury is released to the air.  When it rains, mercury returns to the ground with rainfall where it enters our waterways and contaminates fish and other aquatic life.  Mercury is highly toxic and DHEC warns about eating several species of fish caught in our local waterways that are contaminated with mercury.

Explore the impaired waterways in your area using this map:

View Ashley/Cooper River Basin Impaired Waterways in a larger map

Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)

After determining which waterways do not meet their water quality standards, the next step is to develop a plan for fixing the cause of the impairment.
A “Total Maximum Daily Load,” or TMDL for short, is a two part plan to improve the quality of an impaired waterway. The first part is a cap on the maximum amount of a pollutant a waterway can receive and still meet its water quality standards.  The second part is a plan that describes how each source of a pollutant must be reduced.  After an impaired waterway is identified, DHEC is responsible for developing TMDLs.

In our watershed several waterways have TMDLs in place for fecal coliform or low levels of dissolved oxygen.  These are highlighted in the interactive map below.

View Ashley/ Cooper River Basin TMDLs in a larger map

TMDLs can be and have been successful in helping some of our impaired local waterways meet their water quality standards.  Unfortunately, TMDL development is slow and DHECs resources for developing and implementing TMDL have dwindled.

Wrapping It All Up

The Clean Water Act uses a three part approach to protect the quality of our waterways: goals, evaluation, and intervention (water quality standards, 303(d) list, TMDLs).  Underlying this framework is the notion that local water users have the best knowledge of their local waterways and therefore the highest interest in protecting them.  That’s why the Clean Water Act provides for public participation at every stage, from establishing and updating water quality standards to TMDL development.  Charleston Waterkeeper uses these tools to identify water pollution hotspots and advocate for our right to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.  You can participate by supporting this work with a $40 donation.  Join us.  Become one of the 400.  GIVE 444.

 

Fly Fishing in the Ashley/Cooper River Basin

 

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