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Environment: It’s CSI Murrells Inlet in search for source of bacteria

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Detectives are on the case of a mystery in Murrells Inlet.

This one is not “elementary.”

Pollution detectives are trying to unravel the source of fecal coliform bacteria that has been closing the shellfish beds in the inlet for decades. Suspects range from the usual, stormwater runoff from parking lots, roads and roofs, to the sublime, birds at Huntington Beach State Park and the family dog.

Dan Newquist, water quality project director for the Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, and Dave Fuss, a planner in the Horry County Stormwater Department, told members of the local Sierra Club this week about a yearlong effort to identify harmful bacteria entering Murrells Inlet and develop a plan to reduce it. Sue Sledz, executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, also took part.

“We are looking at the DNA of bacteria,” Fuss said. “It’s like ‘CSI’ trying to figure it out in a lab.”

Murrells Inlet contains 3,108 acres, Newquist said. An area of 2,217 acres is approved for shellfish harvesting, while 736 acres are restricted and 155 acres are within 1,000 feet of a marina and automatically prohibited. The watershed extends across Horry and Georgetown counties and includes the Town of Surfside Beach.

“All these entities,” Newquist said, “have been active and supportive of putting together a plan. Murrells Inlet 2020 has been an excellent sponsor, and Coastal Carolina University has been another integral partner through its monitoring program.”

The Murrells Inlet project received a grant from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, largely on the basis of data that has been collected over the past five years, showing elevated levels of fecal coliform.

“The data collected has helped us do our analysis,” Newquist said, “and will be a key component over the long term in developing future management strategies and identifying areas needing more attention.”

The state has mandated local governments to reduce fecal coliform loads by 80 percent, Newquist said. “That’s a lot of motivation locally to put together a plan to correct some of these problems,” he said, “but that big target number doesn’t address where the sources of pollution are coming from or where we can target load reductions. The problem is certainly not getting better.”

Sledz said the new study uncovered an attempt by DHEC in the 1980s to use ozone chambers and chlorine tanks to try and kill bacteria in stormwater runoff before it entered the inlet. The idea was abandoned, she said.

“Like a light bulb coming on,” she added, “we realized that this problem has been around for a long time.”

Evidence of fecal coliform is found from the urbanized north end at Garden City to the nearly pristine south end near Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park. “There are many potential sources,” Newquist said.

The blanket answer, Sledz said, is the runoff from impervious surfaces, development. “Up north, I can completely buy into that theory. The south end has got us scratching our heads. We are peeling back the onion, finding lots of stuff. There is a high concentration of waterfowl there, a huge siltation problem with no water flow flushing it out. The same is true on the north end. It’s not natural because of the jetties. There are no smoking guns but a lot of clues to track down.”

Old-time residents familiar with the inlet told researchers about their theories: feral cats, ineffective stormwater ponds, eroded landscape and even an old chicken processing operation that closed years ago.

“That could be something to investigate,” Newquist said. “What did they do with the manure from that site? Does it contribute anything today? What about the south end of the inlet, a natural area where they are seeing elevated fecal coliform issues? The park ranger at Huntington Beach State Park gave us some insight into wildlife population trends.”

The reality is that restricted shellfish areas are growing, and sorting through the data is a monumental job. DHEC took aerial infrared photos of the inlet, seeking warm spots as possible bacteria sites. Nothing stood out, Newquist said.

“DHEC has not given us a guidebook as to where that stuff has been coming from,” Fuss said.

DNA analysis of bacteria in the water has been helpful. Traces of caffeine, for instance, indicate a human source. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics lead to the assumption that they have been exposed to antibiotics in either people or animals through medication. Genetic markers identify the species.

“It could be humans, dogs, geese,” Fuss said. “It’s a useful tool to figure out where bacteria is coming from, but it’s time-consuming and expensive.”

A study in the Withers Swash area of Horry County indicated strong signals from dog waste in stormwater runoff.

“We need to encourage people to pick up after their pets, rather than throwing it down the storm drain,” Fuss said. “You wouldn’t believe what people do. What are we going to do if deer are a big contributor? It’s not going to be politically popular to run around shooting deer in people’s backyards. We have to figure out what we can do.”

Sledz said Horry County has budgeted money this year to study the inlet’s northern end, and Georgetown County has funding in a proposed budget next year to study the area around the state park.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Fuss said. “This problem has been going on for decades. We are not the first ones to try and fix it, just the first to try it this way.”

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