Data drives action for clean water

Water Quality Testing

The Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program regularly tests the “swimmability” of several local tidal creeks and hotspots for activities like swimming, SUPing, and sailing. From May through October, samples are collected weekly and analyzed for the amount of Enterococcus bacteria present. Testing results are published as soon as they are available so you can make an informed decision about when and where you swim, SUP, kayak, and sail.

All data is collected and generated under a DHEC approved Quality Assurance Project Plan. Samples are analyzed at the College of Charleston’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences’s Hydrochemistry Research Laboratory which is certified by DHEC to test for Enterococcus bacteria.

View present and past data here.

Learn More: Why Monitor Enterococcus?

Two bacteria groups, coliforms and streptococci, are used as indicators of possible fecal contamination because they are commonly found in human and animal feces. Although generally not harmful themselves, they indicate that pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that live in human digestive systems may also be present. Therefore, their presence above certain levels suggests that swimming and other primary contact recreational activity might be a health risk.

Enterococci, a subgroup of the Streptococcus bacteria group, are known for their ability to survive in saltwater, like many pathogens. Enterococci are also generally more human-specific than other members of the streptococcus group. Accordingly, EPA recommends monitoring programs use enterococci as fecal indicator bacteria because they are the best indicator of the human health risk associated with swimming and other primary contact recreation activity in saltwater.

SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency, Volunteer Stream Monitoring: A Methods Manual, Section 5.11 Fecal Bacteria, EPA 841-B-97-003 (November 1997).

You can also view our sampling results for your favorite waterway using the Swim Guide mobile app or website.
swim guide logo

Sample Site

Frequently Asked Questions

HOW MUCH DOES SAMPLE TESTING COST?

The cost to test one 100 mL sample for Enterococcus bacteria at a commercial laboratory certified by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is $55.00 per sample. Charleston Waterkeeper samples 15 sites each week May to October. The cost to analyze the samples from each weekly sample run is $825.00. The $55.00 covers the cost of analysis only. Other costs include, equipment, supplies, fuel for the Lady C, and staff time.

WHAT DOES A HIGH RESULT MEAN?

A high result is one that exceeds the State of South Carolina’s most stringent single sample maximum water quality standard for the amount of Enterococcus bacteria in waterways used for full body contact recreational activities like swimming. See SC Code Regs 61-68 E(14)(d)(5) and G(11) & (12). Swimming is not recommended in areas where the most recent testing shows bacteria counts of 104 MPN/100 mL or higher. Swimming in these areas may be a health risk, especially for children, the elderly, and those with a compromised immune systems.

WHAT IS A QUALITY ASSURANCE PROJECT PLAN? WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?

A Quality Assurance Project Plan, or QAPP for short, is a guidance document that outlines our water quality monitoring program’s background and goals. More importantly, it contains a detailed set of quality control protocols that govern how we collect, handle, and analyze our samples. Our QAPP is approved by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

A QAPP is important because is ensures the quality of the data generated. This means you can feel confident about the quality of the data we publish. It also means DHEC can use our data to determine whether a waterway should be listed as impaired. This is an important designation because it determines where state resources are spent for developing and implementing watershed restoration plans.

WHY DOES CHARLESTON WATERKEEPER TEST WHERE ITS TESTS?

The Clean Water Act mandates that all waterways be fishable and swimmable. Bacterial contamination impacts our right to swimmable waterways because it can make them unsafe for water-based recreational activity. We test tidal creeks and other sites where swimming, SUPing, sailing, kayaking, and other water-based recreational activities regularly occur.

WHY ARE ONLY 20 SITES TESTED?

Based on our current funding level and available capacity, we determined we could reliably sample 20 sites on a regular basis. In subsequent years, we hope to expand the program to cover additional tidal creeks and hotspots for swimming, SUPing, sailing, and kayaking.

Sampling concludes in October and planning for the next sampling season begins in January. If you’re interested in joining the Charleston Waterkeeper team as a volunteer Field Investigator please reach out to us at info [at] charlestonwaterkeeper [dot] org.

WHY ARE SOME SITES SAMPLED FROM THE LADY C AND OTHERS SAMPLED FROM LAND?

Simply put, sampling from land is easier. Our team of Field Investigators can sample more sites in less time for less cost than if we we’re to sample exclusively from the Lady C. Sampling from land is also not dependent on the weather and safe boating conditions. However, some sites can only be sampled from the water. These include the sites used by Charleston Community Sailing, the College of Charleston Sailing Team, and Carolina Yacht Club.

WHAT ARE THE TEST RESULTS GOOD FOR?

Our test results are for you! That’s why we sample on Wednesday and publish the results on Thursday, just in time for the weekend. We hope you’ll use them to decide when and where it’s safe to enjoy our local waterways for activities like swimming, SUPing, sailing, and even just floating.

Because our data is generated under a DHEC approved Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP), our results can also be used by DHEC to determine whether our local waterways are impaired for recreational uses. This is a very important designation because it determines where state resources are spent for developing and implementing watershed restoration plans.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS FROM SWIMMING IN A WATERWAY WITH HIGH LEVELS OF BACTERIA?

Enterococcus is used as an indicator of possible fecal contamination because they are commonly found in human and animal feces. Although generally not harmful themselves, they indicate that pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that live in human and animal digestive systems may also be present. Therefore, their presence above certain levels suggests that swimming and other primary contact recreational activity might be a health risk. Swimming in contaminated water may lead to health issues like gastrointestinal illness, respiratory, ear, eye, and skin infections, meningitis, and hepatitis.

WHY TEST FOR JUST BACTERIA? WHAT ABOUT OTHER CHEMICALS?

We focused our initial work on bacteria for a number of reasons. Most importantly, roughly 50% of the impaired waterways in our watershed are impaired by high bacteria levels.

The Clean Water Act requires each state to develop a list of impaired waterways every two years. South Carolina’s 2012 list includes 102 impaired waterways in our watershed. Of the 102 impaired waterways, 52 are impaired by high levels of bacteria.

High bacteria levels are one of the biggest threats to water quality in our watershed. They directly impact our right to “swimmable” waterways that are safe for activities like SUPing, swimming, and sailing that make the Lowcounty lifestyle so special. Accordingly, we determined the wisest use of our limited resources was to focus on bacteria monitoring.

In the future we hope to expand monitoring efforts to include a host of common water quality parameters that can give an overall indication of the health of our waterways. This parameters include pH, dissolved oxygen, temperature, conductivity, total dissolved solids, and oxidation reduction potential.

Sampling for chemicals is expensive. For example, the cost to analyze one sample for Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), a common pollutant in stormwater, is $150.00. Determining the impact of chemicals like PAHs on a waterway requires hundreds of samples and specialty laboratory resources. Therefore, this type of sampling is usually conducted by large government agencies and research institutions.

WHAT ARE THE SOURCES OF BACTERIA IN OUR WATERWAYS?

The bacteria in our waterways can come from many different sources: some natural and some manmade. Potential sources may include wild animals, sanitary sewer overflows, poorly treated sewage discharges, boat or vessel discharges, improperly installed and maintained septic tanks, and domestic pets. Determining the source of bacteria contamination is often challenging, time consuming and expensive. However, you can take several simple steps to limit bacteria contamination to your local waterway. Learn more here and here.

WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF THE RECREATIONAL WATER QUALITY MONITORING PROGRAM?

The water quality monitoring program has two goals. Our first goal is to provide quality data to you about the quality of several local hotspots for swimming, SUPing, sailing, kayaking, and sometimes just floating. Our data is published on our website and the Swim Guide. Our second goal is to provide DHEC with our data for use in determining whether our local waterways are impaired for recreational use. This is a very important designation because it determines where state resources are spent for developing and implementing watershed restoration plans.

CAN I HELP BY COLLECTING SAMPLES FROM MY DOCK OR BOAT?

Thank you for your interest in volunteering with Charleston Waterkeeper!

Our program operates under a Quality Assurance Project Plan, or QAPP for short, approved by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The QAPP details the requirements our Field Investigators must meet on a routine basis. These responsibilities include:

Read and understand the QAPP
Be trained in Charleston Waterkeeper’s sample collection and sample handling standard operating procedures
Demonstrate proficiency with sample collection methods
Maintain chain of custody documentation for samples
Maintain field notebook
Sample every Wednesday morning between 8 am and 10:30 am
Maintain samples in a cooler between 1 degree and 10 degrees Celcius.
Deliver samples to Charleston Waterkeeper’s office by 11:30 am.

If you feel you are ready to take on the challenge of serving as a volunteer Field Investigator and can meet the above responsibilities reach out to us at info [at] charlestonwaterkeeper [dot] org.

college of charleston

Environmental Geochemistry Laboratory Partnership

All samples collected as part of the Recreational Water Quality Monitoring Program are analyzed in the DHEC-certified Environmental Geochemistry Laboratory, in partnership with the College of Charleston’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. This partnership strengthens our ability to protect our waterways by not only allowing Charleston Waterkeeper access to space and equipment for regular analysis, but also by providing a multitude of research opportunities and experiences for College of Charleston students. We regularly engage with both undergraduate and graduate students – serving on thesis committees, assisting with student projects, training students in the lab, and organizing field trips, such as Pollution in the Environment’s annual field trip to Shem Creek.

Ashley Cooper

Stormwater Education Consortium

This work is funded in part by our partners at the Ashley Cooper Stormwater Education Consortium, a partnership between community and education partners in Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester working together to protect clean water through stormwater education. Thank you for your support!

The Creek Watcher program offers local citizens the opportunity to participate in the monitoring of their waterways.

Creek Watchers

The Creek Watchers Program is a citizen-science water quality monitoring program that runs throughout the year. This program aims to expand the collection of ambient surface water quality data and engage local citizens in the process of monitoring their waterways. The data collected includes turbidity, temperature, pH, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. Creek Watchers are trained to conduct independent visual and chemical analyses and are expected to complete monthly testing at their assigned station and submit monthly reports to Charleston Waterkeeper.

Creek Watcher’s goal is to offer local citizens the opportunity to participate in the monitoring of their waterways. The more people we have out in the field conducting analysis and recording data, the better we know the conditions of our creeks and rivers. This information and data can help to protect and improve our local waterways.

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