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Environment: From drought to flood, scientists track river’s extremes
By Jason Lesley
Scientists and volunteers worry about changes in the pH balance of the water in the Waccamaw River.
Imagine their concern about hundreds of tons of arsenic and coal ash in ponds at Santee Cooper’s shuttered Grainger Electric Plant along the river banks in Conway.
River monitors gathered at the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies last week to review data gathered over the past year about the Waccamaw’s water quality.
The river began the year in a drought of historic proportions and experienced a flood of historic proportions before returning to normal levels, said Susan Libes of the Waccamaw Watershed Academy at Coastal Carolina University.
“This is something the climate change scientists have been warning us about,” Libes said. “Extreme events will become more common over time.”
Libes said drought conditions, prevalent since 2006, had become standard in the state’s coastal counties. “We’ve become so used to it because it was what we were seeing,” she said.
The drought, Libes said, could be the cause of rising levels of phosphorus in the river water. “Something long term was changing about the river that we couldn’t understand,” she said. With little rainfall, most of the water flowing down river tends to be groundwater with elevated levels of phosphorus, she said, because of its contact with rocks that have high levels of phosphate. “Those rocks were laid down by influences that had to do with the ocean,” she said. “They have a lot of phosphate in them.”
Libes said the river had record low levels of dissolved oxygen this past summer around Bucksport, yet there were no significant fish kills. She said the oxygen could have been depleted by organic material washed out of swamps during the floods. Natural bacteria used oxygen in the water to break it down.
There were other interesting readings about the water: It was a record low year for pH, and water temperatures were extremely low this summer. Low pH stresses organisms, Libes said, and the temperatures were “quite remarkable.”
The Waccamaw Riverkeeper, Christine Ellis, said she hopes Santee Cooper and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Services will change their minds about leaving coal ash in an 82-acre pond on the banks of the river near Conway.
The Riverkeeper organization, other environmental groups and the city of Conway have sued Santee Cooper under the Clean Water Act, hoping to have the ash removed to a landfill rather than sealed in a dry pond near the river.
“We have strongly come out in opposition to the proposed plan,” Ellis said, “and we are waiting for word back from DHEC. We want the coal ash removed to a Class 3 landfill or better away from the banks of the Waccamaw. They have capacity at Cross Generation Station to store the coal ash there.”