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Water quality is good at most SC beaches, despite state’s low overall ranking

Folly Beach, along with the Charleston area’s beach water quality, is fine despite the recent environmental report that ranked the state’s beaches as a whole as the worst in the region. Buy this photo

The beach water quality in South Carolina is the worst in the region and among the worst in the country, at least according to the 2012 annual report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. But that report is as suspect as the water in a polluted test sample.

By the numbers

Water quality rankings for the 30 states that front an ocean or have major lakes:

Best state: Delaware, less than 1 percent polluted of 559 testing samples.

Regional states:

North Carolina (3rd in nation), 2 percent of 6,704 samples.

Georgia (12th), 5 percent of 970 samples.

Florida (13), 5 percent of 8,248 samples.

South Carolina (26), 11 percent of 2,209 samples.

Worst state: Ohio, 21 percent of 2,898 samples.

Regional average: 4 percent.

National average: 7 percent.

* Polluted beach water rankings based on each state’s own test samples

Source: NRDC Annual Beach Report

The NRDC results indicate roughly the same thing year in and year out. But year in and out, the bottom line is the same: Nearly all the beaches in the state are just fine to swim in nearly all the time.

On the web

READ MORE: To read the Natural Resource Defense Council annual beachwater quality report, go to www.nrdc.org.

GALLERY: To see more photos of areas beaches, go to postandcourier.com/galleries.

POLL: Will the beach water quality report affect which beach you choose to go to? Go to postandcourier.com to vote.

Few if any water samples tested come back polluted, and it’s usually a temporary phenomenon caused by sewage runoff after rains. In fact, for 2012 the only Charleston area beach to report bad samples was Folly Beach, and those accounted for only 2 percent of the city’s samples.

South Carolina, Georgia and Florida overall came back with only 4 percent samples that didn’t meet the national public health standard for pollution, among more than 17,000 test samples.

Aggressive sampling to identify and monitor problem spots by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and some beach towns contributes to the poor ranking.

Lindsey Evans, DHEC spokeswoman, agreed with the data summaries in the NRDC report, noting that the report says, “States commonly will prioritize monitoring near suspected pollution sources, which can lead to higher exceedance rates. But identifying locations with high contamination levels is a responsible practice that helps local authorities protect swimmers from exposure to pathogens.”

The state monitors and tests its beaches to provide the greatest possible protection to beachgoers, Evans said.

“Certainly, those programs that go looking for problems can affect the percentage,” said Jon Devine, an NRDC attorney. The report works from testing data submitted by the states to the Environmental Protection Agency. Its rankings don’t discriminate among where, why or what beaches are or aren’t tested.

It ranks according to the percentage of bad samples, beach closings posted online and at the beach, whether notices are posted before re-sampling and how often beaches are tested — among only the beaches that are tested.

The Isle of Palms, for instance, wasn’t particularly well ranked and given stars in only three of those five categories. But the city’s beach has been ranked among the best by the National Clean Beach Council. Isle of Palms supplements state testing with its own in places such as the heavily used Charleston County park.

Maintaining good water quality is something the city is mindful of with its destination beach, said Linda Tucker, city administrator. She is also a resident and out at the beach nearly every day. “The water out here is wonderful,” she said.

The region’s overall good ranking occurs despite the urbanization of Florida beaches partly because a large number of Florida beaches simply don’t report water testing.

“We don’t really try to parse that out,” Devine said.

The culprit for South Carolina is the Grand Strand of high rise hotels and beachfront mobile home parks in Myrtle Beach and surrounding Horry County, where some streets drain rainfall directly into the ocean, and 15 percent of test samples came back bad. Take away those numbers, and South Carolina ranks as well as anybody in the region — well above the national average for water quality.

The report champions a Myrtle Beach project piping street drainage to outfalls farther offshore as the most encouraging improvement in the state.

In fact, among 20,000 closing or swimming-caution days for beaches across the country, only 6 occurred in South Carolina.

The greater Southeast region features two “superstar” beaches, the Gulf Shores public beach and state park in Alabama. And none of the 11 “repeat offenders” are beaches in the Southeast. The urban, freshwater Great Lakes region had the largest percentage of polluted samples overall.

With the report, NRDC pushes for “evergreen solutions” to cleaner beaches like natural buffers and porous pavement.

“Americans don’t expect bacteria, raw sewage and dangerous pollution in the water when they go swimming at the beach, but too often the agency responsible for protecting us is falling down on the job,” said Steve Fleischli, NRDC water program director.

“My takeaway for South Carolina is similar to every state in the region and the nation,” Devine said. “There are beaches that frequently test and constantly test for water that doesn’t meet national public health standards. People swim after rainshowers. People swim near storm drains. Check your monitoring information.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Peterson Reporting on Facebook.

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