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Town presses county for stormwater controls

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

An effort to clean up Pawleys Creek may not lead to the reopening of shellfish harvesting during the two-year life of a state grant to study sources of pollution. But participants say the project will still leave the creek better off.

A $300,000 grant is funding the project through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Pawleys and Midway creeks have been closed to shellfishing for decades because of high levels of bacteria. The ultimate goal is to allow clam and oyster harvesting.

“I’m not going to say it’s going to happen in the next two years,” said Debbie Mann, a district conservationist who is working on the project.

“In light of all the new development going on, you are going to be better off,” said Nicole Saladin, coordinator of the coastal training program at the North Inlet Esturaine Research Reserve.

If tougher regulations are needed to improve the quality of water flowing into Pawleys Creek, they will have to come from Georgetown County, according to Pawleys Island officials.

Those may come in proposed revisions to the county stormwater ordinance and as growth brings the area within federal stormwater guidelines, said Tracy Jones, the county’s stormwater engineer.

Only the area around Murrells Inlet currently falls within the stricter federal guidelines, but Jones told Town Council members this week that could extend to the entire county in 2010.

The county is also a partner in the creek cleanup project. It covers 5,900 acres between North Litchfield and the south end of Pawleys Island. That’s the area east of Highway 17 that drains into the creek system.

The town of Pawleys Island created landscape buffer requirements and tweaked its building setback requirements to encourage gutters that help reduce runoff from rooftops. It requires pervious surfaces for driveways and parking areas.

“You could do that tomorrow if there’s the political will to do it,” Mayor Bill Otis told Jones.

He suggested that an overlay zone could be created in the Pawleys Creek watershed to deal with the need to reduce stormwater runoff from the mainland side.

That solution would probably work, said County Council Member Glenn O’Connell, whose district includes much of the watershed.

“As long as you crafted something that doesn’t cause folks on the other side of the [Waccamaw] river to do something, I don’t think there would be a problem passing it,” he said this week.

Measurements of fecal coliform bacteria are used to measure the health of the creek. The state limit is 14 parts per 100 milliliters.

A 2005 report shows levels at eight sampling stations between Litchfield Boulevard and Pawleys Inlet are as high as 54 parts per 100.

The average was lowest at Pawleys Inlet, but the peak levels still exceeded the state standard.

Fecal coliform bacteria is found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals.

According to the 2005 report by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, bacteria levels are tied to the amount of freshwater runoff into the Pawleys Creek system.

As part of the cleanup project, Mann said, partners from the various agencies have tried to identify all the ditches that carry runoff into the creek. They have met with homeowner groups on the mainland and given out pet-waste disposal systems to people who live in the watershed.

Friends of Pawleys Creek was formed to encourage public participation and continue the effort once the grant ends.

“I hope County Council will be responsive to best management practices,” Otis said.

“The county is very sensitive to it,” said Don Corinna, the county’s capital projects manager. It added a $90,000 “smart sponge” to a drainage project at Waverly Road to eliminate bacteria flowing into the creek, he noted.

Much of the runoff into the Pawleys Creek watershed comes through ditches that are maintained by the state Department of Transportation, Corinna said.

“It’s very hard to get DOT to do anything,” he said. “They didn’t care about what we’re doing” at Waverly Road.

Saladin said that’s why the effort is aimed at community involvement across jurisdictional boundaries.

The town “is an example of what can be done,” she said.

“Do you think in your lifetime you’ll be able to eat an oyster out of Pawleys Creek,” Council Member Glennie Tarbox asked.

“I would think so,” Mann said.

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