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Murrells Inlet: Plan to protect watershed needs funding

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Saving the oyster beds in Murrells Inlet from a rising tide of pollutants is the top priority of a watershed study that will be submitted to the state Department of Health and Environmental Services early next year.

Dan Newquist, a planner for Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, told members of the Winyah Chapter of the Sierra Club this week that the plan is in the rough draft stage after about a year’s work. It is due by Feb. 21 with hopes it will lead to funds to implement recommendations to maintain water quality standards that allow human consumption of shellfish.

Newquist said keeping the inlet’s two public shellfish grounds open is a very important goal for the plan. “That is a public resource and has been part of the Murrells Inlet culture for a long time,” he said. Additionally, he said, there are six other commercially leased shellfish areas in the inlet.

Dave Fuss of Horry County Stormwater Department, another speaker at the club, said the water quality standards for shellfish is very strict because it’s based on the assumption that people may harvest and eat shellfish raw. “That’s a lot different,” he said, “from being out on the beach and being in contact with water while you are swimming.”

Fuss said 13 of 24 water monitoring stations on the inlet don’t meet water quality standards on a regular basis. DHEC’s mandate is to reduce the pollution by 80 percent.

“Our job is to find where the sources are and figure out what to do about it,” Fuss said. “DHEC doesn’t tell you where it’s coming from. There’s no smoking gun. It’s coming from all over the place. There’s also no silver bullet to fix it. That makes it complicated.”

Newquist said the solution to cleaning up the inlet will have to involve the whole community’s efforts because the primary suspect, septic tank systems, is not the only cause. “This will be a multi-faceted strategy,” he said. “In our assessment, we did not find any reason to believe septic systems are the only cause. We want to make sure they are well inspected and have a contingency plan to get them connected to sewer if they become a problem. We can’t ignore pet waste as a source along with wildlife.”

Rising fecal coliform bacteria in the southern end of the inlet near Huntington Beach State Park caused researchers to take a closer look. With stormwater runoff, a major culprit in developed areas eliminated, the source was found to be natural: birds. The southern areas have been reopened to shellfish harvesting recently as bacteria subsided. The northern end of the inlet, Fuss said, is another story. Heavily developed, it has been exceeding minimum standards for water quality for a long time.

Solutions will involved a number of things. “Some are engineering approaches, like low-impact development,” Newquist said. Others include oyster-shell recycling and restoration projects along with public education to maintain no-wake zones so boaters don’t stir up bacteria-loaded sediment.

Fuss said the old thinking of moving stormwater away from private property as quickly as possible has led to the rising bacteria levels as more ground has been covered with concrete and rooftops.

“You are replacing natural infiltration by installing stormwater pipes and ditches,” he said. “It has increased very dramatically the rate at which pollutants are delivered to the water bodies and inlet shellfish beds.”

If residents could be convinced to buy into a culture of filtering rainwater before it’s allowed to leave their property, either by rain gardens or rain barrels at the end of gutters, the bacteria numbers would fall dramatically, Fuss said.

Newquist said the report will prioritize best management practices in areas with recurrent problems.

“A lot of areas are meeting the standard consistently,” he said. “That’s good news. A lot of the watershed has exceeded the standard for years. There’s an opportunity for Murrells Inlet to correct itself and return the majority of its shellfish beds to green status. In our discussions with DHEC, their goal is to have 80 percent of the beds open. Some are close to meeting the standard, a little improvement could put them over the top.”

Newquist said the partnerships between volunteer water monitors and institutions like Horry and Georgetown counties, Coastal Carolina University and Murrells Inlet 2020 have proven invaluable. The Earthworks Group produced maps of the 9,100-acre watershed and its 52 sub-areas.

“We have a lot of great resources in place,” Newquist said. “I applaud both counties for investing in volunteer monitoring. I can’t say enough about the partnerships involved with the project. Murrells Inlet has been progressive in trying to address issues. The volunteer monitoring program is exceptional, and they can just build upon that. There is an opportunity in Murrells Inlet to stay focused on keeping it clean, keeping it healthy.”

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