The Unsexy Topic That Everyone Should Be Talking About…OUR WATER IS CONTAMINATED AND ITS OUR FAULT

I don’t think any of us knew what to expect when the clouds broke open and the rain started on Thursday October 1st 2015.  Well, it was historic…the rain continued for 4 days and averaged around 2 feet of rain!!!! That was INSANE! However most of us in the Charleston area, fared well (some leaky roofs, perhaps a flooded car, but overall (we were lucky) and we know it.  In other parts of our state, people died…entire neighborhoods ruined, highways closed, roads washed away…it was terrible.  That’s about as bad as it gets.  It rained, and rained and rained and all we could do was wait for it to stop.  Now 3 weeks later, we are left with a lot of repair on our hands….some of the devastation will never be fixed…some of it will….but it’s important to not forget, how that rain ravaged our beautiful state and the importance of respecting flood warnings.  It’s also important to plan for future occurrences, so perhaps the aftermath won’t be as horrific as it was this time.

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In wake of the headlines and news reports that have run non stop, not much has really addressed the real problem we are dealing with now: HOW DOES THE STORM WATER RUNOFF EFFECT OUR WATERWAYS?  A fact that most people living here probably don’t realize: South Carolina has more salt marsh than any other state on the east coast (nearly 400,000 acres) with Charleston county having more salt marsh than any other county in the state!  Well, since this is all taking place during my oyster feature, “30 Days of Oysters” I am going to share what I have discovered regarding the after math of this storm..because its unsettling, its scary and some of it, really is preventable!  I started planning this oyster feature about 2 months ago…so imagine how terrible the timing was?!?!  The rain and flooding all happened 1 week before I was set to launch my oyster kickoff!  The 1,000 year storm rolled in and closed the oyster beds, 2 days after opening.  (I don’t mean to sound trivial here…but I was pretty bummed out that the oyster beds were closing for what was expected to be 4 weeks!)  I planned my 30 day feature to kick off oyster season…and then right after the season opens…its closed.  BIG BUMMER.  So, like any good blogger, I decided to roll with it anyways…especailly after I realized what the real reason for the beds being closed was: our waterways were contaminated….largely because of our lack of ecological awareness!  That’s right folks…we are responsible for the oyster and shellfish beds being closed.

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HERE IT GOES:

Q). What is storm water runoff and how did it effect the shellfish industry?

A). “Storm water runoff is rainfall that flows over the ground surface. It is created when rain falls on roads, driveways, parking lots, rooftops and other paved surfaces that do not allow water to soak into the ground. Storm water runoff is the number one cause of stream impairment in urban areas.”
sourced from: (forestsforwatersheds.org/reduce-stormwater/)     

It effects our local shellfish industry because once the water is contaminated and unable to be filtered or processed or absorbed into the natural channels….the contaminated water then funnels directly into OUR LOCAL WATERWAYS!  That’s right, that means that the contamination is a direct result of our daily choices and decisions.  To better understand this subject and a more clear understanding about what this all means, I contacted Charleston Waterkeeper.  If you aren’t familiar with them, this is directly from their website, they are:

Founded in 2008 and incorporated in 2009, we are a Charleston, South Carolina based organization whose mission is to protect, promote, and restore the quality of Charleston’s waterways while creating a more engaged public through education, outreach, and celebration of our collective right to clean water.  (charlestonwaterkeeper.com)

I was very fortunate to have the chance to sit down and talk with, Andrew Wunderley, Esq.: our local Waterkeeper.  Andrew shared with me some of the science (some of which, were terms I had never heard before) and explained and broke down what it all means and how we can make a difference in the future.  Some of this is all over my head so the best way for me to describe and explain some it, is to take it directly from the websites I checked out…because they said it best, here is what I found.

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Q). What is impervious cover and why is important?

A).  “Impervious cover is any surface in the landscape that cannot effectively absorb or infiltrate rainfall. This includes driveways, roads, parking lots, rooftops, and sidewalks. When natural landscapes are intact, rainfall is absorbed into the soil and vegetation.”
(nemo.udel.edu University of Delaware).

As Andrew explained to me when it rains (in a rural area) 90% of the rain absorbs into the ground and 10% overflows to nearby waterway.  Except that in urban/suburban areas (like ours) maybe 40% soaks in and 60% runs into the waterway.  So lets think about that…when it rains the water is then running over everything it touches and then runs off into the nearby land, creeks, rivers, marsh and ocean.  Seems logical, makes sense.  So whats the big deal, why are all the shellfish beds still closed?  Everything is seemingly back to normal, but 3 weeks later the shell fish beds are still closed (for almost the entire state).  Why???  They are closed because that rain water that came down couldn’t be absorbed and so the longer it sat waiting to be absorbed…the longer it was exposed to absorbing numerous pollutants and washed them into the water. The beds are still closed because, DHEC tests show unhealthy levels of bacteria in the water.  3 weeks later should be a big red flag…that something is really wrong.

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DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) closed all shellfish beds from the St.Helena Sound to the mouth of the Bull River and slightly farther north of the North Carolina state line.  That’s a lot of area to close.  The beds remain closed until healthy levels of bacteria are returned to the area.  The timeline is unknown. They are testing for: fecal coliform bacteria.

Q). What is fecal coliform bacteria?  Why is important to understand all of this?

A).  “Fecal coliform bacteria are the most common microbiological contaminants of natural waters. Fecal coliform live in the digestive tracks of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and are excreted in the feces. Although most of these bacteria are not harmful and are part of the normal digestive system, some are pathogenic to humans. Those that are pathogenic can cause disease such as gastroenteritis, ear infections, typhoid, dysentery, hepatitis A, and cholera.”  (clemson.edu)

“Large amounts of fecal coliform are released in the waste of farm animals and can be washed into streams by runoff from rain or irrigation. Urban areas contribute to fecal coliform contamination when wastes from dogs, cats, raccoons, and humans are carried into storm drains, creeks, and lakes during storms. Fecal coliform can also enter streams from illegal or leaky sanitary sewer connections, poorly functioning septic tanks, and wastewater treatment plants that are not functioning properly.” (clemson.edu)

SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?  HOW CAN WE HELP?

I know a lot of that “sciencey stuff” is hard to understand, but its important we try to and learn what we can do to help reduce the impact of damage to our waterways.  Heres a few tips that Andrew shared:

  • don’t overuse pesticides
  • have regular septic tank checks and maintenance done as suggested
  • support local water infrastructure initiatives
  • pickup after pets
  • reduce the amount of impervious cover at our homes and work (as much as possible)
  • take steps to collect rain water on your property with rain barrels and gardens

I hope that anyone that reads this article would look at their daily choices and actions and try to ask themselves, what can they do (on the individual level) to help protect our waterways.  It may not seem like a very big deal that the oyster beds are closed for a few weeks…but it is, it highlights a much larger problem, that we as a community need to make changes and try to eliminate some of these problems.  Just this one thing…the oyster beds being closed, has effected the oyster harvesters, restaurants, organizations that rely on fundraising efforts (through oyster roasts-that have been cancelled), the waterways and wildlife whose ecological balance has been disrupted (that we don’t even know the full effects of this fall out from the damage).  Every persons decisions make a difference.

As the famous and legendary Clammer Dave told me while we were on our water excursions, as he showed me his oyster harvesting ways…”the closer we live to the water, the higher our social responsibility to care for it. People forget that part.”

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(map of Charleston taken from: travelerofcharleston.com)