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Environment: Decline in shellfish areas brings call for inlet water quality plan

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

After a vote by Murrells Inlet 2020 board members last week, efforts are under way to organize a group that will be tasked with creating an inlet watershed management plan.

The group will be known as the Murrells Inlet Watershed Advisory Board. It hasn’t been determined how many members it will have or who will be tapped to serve, but plans are to have Georgetown and Horry county councils, as well as the Surfside Beach Town Council, pass resolutions in support of the group.

“It’s a little premature to say exactly what the guidelines will be and who it will be comprised of. It’s still in the formative stages,” said Jim Wilkie, a Murrells Inlet 2020 Advisory Board member who is spearheading the initiative. He’s working closely on the project with Sue Sledz, the community revitalization group’s executive director.

What is for sure is that the group will be focused on improving water quality in the inlet and reversing a trend reflected in the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s most recent update on shellfish management areas. The update, published in August, reported a “slight decline” in water quality in the inlet, which resulted in plans for a new advisory board.

“Murrells Inlet has long been considered to be the most economically important shellfish producing area along South Carolina’s northern coast,” according to the report. It has more than 3,100 acres of habitat suitable for the production of shellfish, including numerous commercial shellfish permit areas, three state shellfish grounds that are used commercially and recreationally, and two recreational shellfish grounds.

But between 2009 and 2010, the inlet lost 241 acres of harvestable shellfish area due to lowered water quality and levels of human pathogens exceeding established thresholds for safe shellfish harvesting.

“That’s a small percent, but it’s part of a progression in the wrong direction,” Wilkie said. “What Murrells Inlet 2020 has said is that we need to think about what we’re going to do in the long run to try to assuage this progression of unapproved oyster beds.

“The whole idea of this new group is to be consistent with the water quality goals of the [Environmental Protection Agency], DHEC, both counties and Surfside. To a large extent, it’s regulated and mandated what needs to be done, but it needs to have public support. We need to have a little group that says, ‘do we really know what the total problem is, what do we want to do about it and how much is it going to cost,’ because we’ll be trying to garner support from the agencies.”

A meeting has already been planned with the EPA and talks have started with 1st District Rep. Tim Scott about getting funding for more water sampling and identification of specific sources of bacteria being found in the inlet.

High levels of bacteria in the inlet, affecting shellfish beds there, has “always been a concern and we know once those beds are closed off, they’re not going to open it back up,” said Al Hitchcock, a Murrells Inlet 2020 board member and partner in one of the inlet’s seafood restaurants, Drunken Jack’s. “They told us that in the early ‘80s.”

Inlet residents were led to believe back then that if they all tapped into the sewer system, water quality would improve and some beds could be reopened, but instead more have been closed, according to Hitchcock.

“We do need to preserve what we have out there and the best way to do that is by monitoring the water. We need to know the conditions on a daily basis and it’s up to us to use that data the best we can to protect the inlet.”

Because Murrells Inlet has areas chronically polluted by bacteria, in 2005 DHEC issued a requirement for an 80 percent load reduction in pathogens for eight sites in Murrells Inlet. That increased to 20 sites in 2011.

Volunteer water quality monitoring data from Murrells inlet corroborate those findings.

In May 2008, Murrells Inlet 2020, in partnership with Coastal Carolina University’s Waccamaw Watershed Academy, Georgetown and Horry counties and Surfside Beach, started the monitoring program, which samples eight tidal creeks, based on the hypothesis that flows from these creeks carry significant amounts of land-based contaminants into the inlet.

Testing parameters focus on the most common coastal concerns: fecal contamination, soil erosion and overuse of fertilizers. Four of the eight creeks being sampled experience chronic bacteria impairments, according to results. The median concentrations at three of these sites are equal to or higher than EPA health allowances for even occasional contact.

The watershed management plan the new board will come up with will include an updated assessment of pollution sources and their relative contribution, a list of implementation strategies to address those sources, and cost estimates and timetables for implementing strategies.

The planning effort provides an opportunity to open up communication lines to partner with EPA, DHEC and other agencies, and will give the counties a competitive advantage in being able to justify the need for funding to fix the problems, Sledz said.

Representatives from DHEC’s Bureau of Water, the state Oyster Restoration and Enhancement program, Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments Section 208 Water Quality planning, Georgetown and Horry county stormwater departments and the Waccamaw Watershed Academy have voiced their support for development of the plan.

Volunteer monitoring data is available online.. The DHEC update for Area 4 is also available online.

Call Murrells Inlet 2020 at 357-2007 for more information.

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