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Water quality concerns focus on runoff

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Water quality of the Waccamaw River is good overall, according to data gathered through a volunteer monitoring project.

But there are some concerns about water quality standards not being met consistently, said Christine Ellis, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper. The primary concern, she said, is with low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water.

The regulatory standard put in place for dissolved oxygen by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control is 4 parts per million.

“It looks like we’re regularly going under that standard,” Ellis said. “When you’re below the regulatory standard, you’re stressing the organisms that rely on dissolved oxygen in the water.”

Trends suggest the problem is getting worse and if it continues, it will eventually start killing off fish and aquatic plants.

Data collected through the volunteer monitoring project was presented at a conference in Litchfield last week and Ellis said it corroborates an earlier trend analysis published by DHEC.

The program has three monitoring sites in Georgetown County: Wachesaw Landing, Hagley Landing and the Sampit River entrance.

As for what’s causing levels to drop, Ellis said, “we’re not exactly sure, but we’re thinking it’s probably pollutants entering the river through stormwater runoff.”

Runoff is the principal source of water pollution in the U.S.

Ellis said she hopes programs put in place by the Riverkeeper program and Georgetown County will help increase dissolved oxygen levels to meet the regulatory standard as the public becomes better educated on how to reduce stormwater runoff. She said vegetative barriers are one of the best ways to keep pollutants from being carried into the river.

“Vegetation is like a natural wastewater treatment plant,” filtering out pollutants before stormwater reaches its destination, she said.

Data from the monitoring project also showed nutrient levels in the river appear elevated, but there are no state water quality standards in place for nutrients. The data was compared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2000 recommendation for southeastern coastal plain rivers and the group’s national ammonia criteria standard.

The standard is exceeded in certain areas of the Waccamaw.

“We do see little spikes around Hagley and Sampit,” Ellis said. “We’re not sure exactly what those inputs are related to, but higher nutrient levels are generally indicative of fertilizers.”

She said those nutrients would likely find their way into the river through runoff from golf courses and residential developments.

The preliminary trend analysis suggests decreasing concentration since monitoring began.

As for bacteria levels, the data indicates the recreational standard for E. coli is “not commonly exceeded, at least for the period of time” sampling has occurred, Ellis said. Sampling for E. coli in the Waccamaw River started just over a year ago.

The Waccamaw River volunteer monitoring project started in June 2006. There are about 40 volunteers who sample the waters twice a month at various spots on the river.

“With three years of data, this is really the first year we can do any meaningful trend analysis,” Ellis said.

As more data is collected it will paint a clearer picture of the state of the Waccamaw River.

Data from the monitoring program is available online at www.coastal.edu/wwa/vm/index.html.

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