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Agency says effect of discharge on river too small to measure

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The effect of discharging 500,000 gallons of treated wastewater into the Waccamaw River near Winyah Bay is so small that it can’t be measured, according to state regulators.

And that’s without taking into account the flow of water through the Waccamaw and Pee Dee river basins, said Larry Turner, who is in charge of waste-load monitoring for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“The discharge was insignificant without even considering river flow,” he said at a hearing this week on a state permit that will allow wastewater from a treatment plant at DeBordieu to be diverted to the river.

Some conservation groups say the discharge, though small, will still contribute to the degradation of water quality in the Waccamaw River.

“We’re not relying on current data,” said Christine Ellis, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper. “We’re misunderstanding the system.”

She said levels of dissolved oxygen, a measure of the river’s health, already fall below state standards.

Treated wastewater from the DeBordieu plant, operated by Georgetown County Water and Sewer District, is currently sprayed over the golf course.

The DeBordieu Colony Community Association has funded the engineering and permitting of an alternate discharge to the river for times when the golf course is too saturated to take sprayed effluent.

There have been complaints about the smell of the effluent and the impact of the spraying on the golf course.

But a dozen DeBordieu residents who spoke at the hearing stressed that their primary goal is limiting the potential for treated wastewater to flow into the adjacent North Inlet estuary.

DHEC has proposed issuing a permit to allow up to 500,000 gallons a day of discharge into the river at the Highway 17 bridge, provided the storage lagoon at DeBordieu is full and no other water is used for golf course irrigation. From November through February, the discharge to the river would be capped at 375,000 gallons a day under the same conditions.

“We’re setting limits based on critical conditions,” said Mike Montebello, manager of DHEC’s domestic wastewater permitting.

There would only be a discharge into the river at times of unusually heavy rains, such as occurred last week when the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida moved up the coast, Montebello said.

The project has the support of the University of South Carolina’s Baruch Institute, which has a research lab on North Inlet at Hobcaw Barony.

North Inlet is “one of the most pristine and least disturbed salt marsh estuaries in the world,” said Dennis Allen, director of the marine lab.

He estimated the DeBordieu discharge amounts to six ten-thousandths of what is placed in the Winyah Bay watershed by communities, farms and businesses.

“We could not be expected to measure any change in water quality,” he said.

The Coastal Conservation League also supports the permit. It is a question of impacting the North Inlet or the Waccamaw River, said Nancy Cave, director of the league’s office in Georgetown. The research at the North Inlet is essential to protecting other estuaries, she said.

But Ellis said North Inlet and the Waccamaw River both need protection, and the alternate discharge plan ignores other options.

“Why does it need to go anywhere?” she asked.

Water conservation and reuse of “gray water” would reduce the amount of wastewater.

John Bracken, a member of the Sierra Club, said he was concerned that future growth in DeBordieu would increase the pressure for discharges into the river.

Sue Myers, a member of the League of Women Voters, said the permit ignores the option of treating the wastewater to a higher level.

“We are working toward the minimum we can get away with,” she said.

The DeBordieu plant treats wastewater to a “secondary level,” as do other plants that discharge into the Waccamaw River, Montebello said. The discharge meets state water quality standards for swimming and other recreational activities, though not for shellfish harvesting.

“Would you let your kids or grandchildren swim in the river?” asked Bill Chandler, a Murrells Inlet resident.

“I would certainly have no problem with them swimming in the river,” Montebello said, though not in DeBordieu’s storage lagoon.

He stressed that the spray irrigation will remain the principal disposal system for the DeBordieu treatment plant.

There is a 14-day storage capacity in its lagoon, and he doesn’t believe the river discharge will be used often.

The water and sewer district will have to report each discharge.

“If discharges occur more frequently than we think they will, we have the ability to reopen this permit,” Montebello said.

Wilson Lowery, a DeBordieu resident who helped develop the alternate discharge plan, said they considered adding to the spray disposal area and creating a wetland to increase storage. Neither idea was feasible because of the high water table in the area, he said.

Development at DeBordieu has already been cut from 3,000 to 1,250 units, and additional buffers have been created at the golf course to reduce runoff, he said.

But he said the annual volume of sprayed effluent is equal to 3 feet of water on the 111-acre golf course. Rainfall last year brought the total water on the course to 9 feet.

“There’s no way to avoid runoff,” Lowery said.

DHEC will continue to take comments on the permit until Tuesday. They should be sent to Weijia Hu, Bureau of Water, 2600 Bull St., Columbia SC 29201 or huw@dhec.sc.gov.

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