Experts issue warnings on Lowcountry water quality

By Debi Chard, originally posted July 28, 2016


CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) – You may not have made the connection between your sore throat, and your fun out on local waterways.  But experts agree that boating, skiing, paddle boarding, and swimming, can lead to many kinds of infections if you are in bacteria-filled water.

Knowing what’s in the water with you could save a trip to the doctor’s office.

The upper part of Shem Creek is one of the places experts say you should not have been swimming this week.  It’s the same story for James Island Creek, and they’re not the only areas with high levels of bacteria on South Carolina’s coast.

There is a way to check the water before you go.

Thousands of people hit Lowcountry waterways during the summer months.

Andrew Wunderley, of Charleston Waterkeeper, says Shem Creek is a favorite spot.

“You’ve got kayakers coming in here, folks on paddleboards, you’ve got the shrimp boats, and the commercial fishing industry,” Wunderley said.

On a recent trip, we found a couple dozen people in Shem Creek standing on paddle boards and paddling in kayaks.

Charleston Waterkeeper comes to Shem Creek and about a dozen other locations known for water sports every Wednesday morning during the swim season.

“We test for enterococcus bacteria every Wednesday, May through October,” Wunderley said. “That bacteria indicates the possibility of fecal matter in the water,” Wunderly said.

“Here in Charleston, the fecal contamination is a huge issue and people have a right to know whether it’s safe to swim or not,” Waterkeeper scientist Cheryl Carmack said.

Waterkeeper testing posted July 20 shows high levels of the bacteria in four spots. Two were in James Island Creek, one off Brittlebank Park, and the fourth, in upper Shem Creek where levels were almost 12 times above safe limits.  Charleston Waterkeeper says don’t swim there.

“And if you do find yourself in those waters, it’s a really good idea to shower afterward and clean up,” Wunderly said.

Health experts say contact with polluted water can give you stomach problems (gastroenteritis,) eye, ear, nose and throat infections as well as skin rashes.

Charleston Waterkeeper targets the favorite hangouts.

There’s a science to the sampling and testing process. It’s regulatory quality. The samples are tested in partnership with a College of Charleston lab, which is certified by the State Health Department.

“I’ve gotten really bad ear infections from swimming in waterways with high levels of fecal contamination, so we’ve all had that experience and may not know that’s what it’s from,” Carmack says.

Waterkeeper test results are posted each week. Beachgoers can also check a state health department website. In the Myrtle Beach area, there are often pollution alerts.

Tidal creeks are the first connection between land and water and are pathways for pollution.

“Those pollutants can be anything from bacteria from pets and human waste to fertilizers and herbicides, and oil and grease from cars,” Wunderley said.

Longterm Waterkeeper data shows James Island Creek has chronic pollution, as does Shem Creek.  Most serious issues are in upper Shem Creek, but lower parts of Shem Creek are often red-flagged, almost half of the season so far this year.   Charleston Waterkeeper recommends staying informed.

“That directly impacts you and everyone that loves to use our waterways here in Charleston, so it’s important,” said.

Conditions change so Carmack recommends you not swim after a heavy rainfall when the pollution can be at its worst.  Wait at least 48 hours.

The state health department also monitors eleven permitted swimming areas on Lakes Marion and Moultrie. These areas are required to take two water samples per month during the swimming season and the samples are analyzed for E. Coli. If the levels are too high, then the swim area is closed.

Short Stay on Lake Moultrie is currently closed, according to a health department spokesman.

According to the state health department, the following are the eleven permitted swimming areas:

  • Lake Moultrie
  • Lions Beach – Camp
  • Lions Beach – Public
  • Somerset Point
  • Overton Park
  • Russellville Recreation Area
  • Short Stay
  • Lake Marion
  • Rocks Pond
  • Spiers Landing
  • Camp Mac Boykin
  • Poinsett State Park
  • R.M. Cooper Leadership Center

Another state health department swim advisory is posted for Jeremy Creek at McClellanville.

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