Improving Recreational Water Quality Standards

Petition Aims to Improve SC Recreational Water Quality Standards 

Charleston Waterkeeper seeks to amend outdated recreational saltwater quality guidelines to speed cleanup of waterbodies impaired by high bacteria levels and better protect public health.

TUESDAY, JUNE 25, 2019 — Today, Charleston Waterkeeper urged South Carolina regulators to implement a more stringent bacteria standard for a class of recreational saltwaters in order to protect public health and shared natural resources.

Specifically, the group petitioned the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to begin the process of imposing a more protective standard for enterococci—bacteria that indicate the presence of fecal waste and disease-causing pathogens in water.  The current standard for Class SB waters, including Shem Creek in Charleston, is 501 MPN/100 mL. The Charleston Waterkeeper is asking that the more protective Class SA 104 MPN/100 mL standard be used for these recreational saltwaters.

The petition—filed on behalf of the Charleston Waterkeeper by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP)—stems from Waterkeeper’s work in testing and improving the water quality of Shem Creek, one of Charleston County’s most popular tidal creeks that’s used for fishing, paddling, swimming, and other recreational uses. Shem Creek’s Class SB water quality designation is significantly less protective than Class SA, despite prolific recreational uses of Shem Creek and other Class SB waters throughout the state.

Since 2013, Charleston Waterkeeper has tested more than 380 samples from three distinct locations in Shem Creek, and their results consistently show extreme excess of acceptable levels of enterococci. On average, Shem Creek’s enterococci count is 830 MPN/100 mL, nearly twice the Class SB standard of 501 MPN/100 mL, and eight times the Class SA standard of 104 MPN/100 mL.

The state’s current standard for Class SB waters appears to be based on outdated guidelines from the EPA’s 1986 recreational water quality criteria and severely underestimates the extent of the water quality problem in Shem Creek and all other Class SB waters. Applying a new standard of 104 MPN/100 mL to Class SB waters would emphasize the severity of bacteria impairment in all coastal waters and highlight restoration priorities for regulators, dischargers, and the public.

The Waterkeeper seeks this rule change in order to have a consistent recreational standard across all saltwater quality classifications, to comply with current scientific findings, and to address societal concerns and community expectations.

“We shouldn’t have to risk getting ear, eye, and skin infections or gastroenteritis just to go swimming in a local creek,” said the nonprofit’s Executive Director & Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley. “State regulators and local communities can’t hide behind outdated standards that minimize the health risks and maintain the status quo. We need strong protections from the state and bold action by our local communities to make all our creeks and rivers safe for swimming. We have the data, we know there is a problem, the time to act is now.”

“The public has a right to recreate in our state’s saltwaters, and they should be able to do so without significant health risks posed by poor water quality,” according to SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong. “We are asking the state to step up and protect its citizens from excessive bacteria currently allowed under the Class SB standard.”

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) protects the natural environment of South Carolina by providing legal services and advice to environmental organizations and concerned citizens and by improving the state’s system of environmental regulation.

Charleston Waterkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore Charleston’s Waterways for our community and for future generations. We do that through unique mix of boots-on-the-water stewardship and data-driven advocacy designed to protect the public’s right to clean water for fishing and swimming. 

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