Cleaning up the creeks

John Sperry sits on his James Island Creek dock and enjoys his view of nature. Sperry likes to swim and canoe in the creek in the summertime.

The creek outside John Sperry’s door seems pristine. He loves to swim it, paddle a canoe, sit on the dock and soak it in.

But James Island Creek, also called Ellis Creek, has been found too polluted to swim in for more than three years running in testing by Charleston Waterkeeper. Testing off his dock consistently finds unsafe levels of fecal bacteria — animal or human waste.

Now the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has made a priority of putting together a plan to clean it up, a move that community members called for. But that could turn into an expensive headache for the community itself.

The only real “point source,” or singly located discharger in the creek environs is the Plum Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. But the plant’s pipe discharges at the deep water edge of the Ashley River channel in the middle of Charleston Harbor. The problem in the creek is “non-point,” stormwater runoff and other pollution, such as leaking septic tanks.

Yes, at least some of the homes along James Island Creek, including Sperry’s, still have septic systems.

“Leaking septics are a common source of non-point pollution,” said Heather Preston, DHEC water quality division director.

The creek joins a growing list of waterways becoming more polluted as population growth and development turn the coastal Lowcountry into a metro area. Charleston Waterkeeper recently petitioned the state to clean up Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant, after testing there found the same waste.

The water quality in the Charleston Harbor estuaries has been deteriorating for years, while the monitoring has fallen off and efforts to maintain it for fishing or swimming aren’t stopping the degradation.

A lot of it is stormwater runoff: pollution carried by rain from impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads and parking lots. Everything from gasoline to pet waste ends up in the stream.

But more than 45,000 pounds of toxic chemicals have been dumped — legally under permits — in the basin each year, according to 2010 Environmental Protection Agency records analyzed by Environmental America in 2012. Recent research is finding pollutants such as flame retardants, stain repellents and plastics in the tissue of marine animals.

As far as James Island Creek, DHEC will do its own testing, try to identify sources and come up with a Total Maximum Daily Load of pollutants the creek can stand. The department then will make a series of permit requirements for any single-point dischargers. For runoff sources, DHEC will make recommendations to property owners on how to control it, said David Baize, acting Water Bureau chief.

The plan won’t come in a hurry. The creek is one of nine river or lake waterbodies that have been made priorities, from among 964 in the state that are on a federally mandated list of “impaired waterways” to be monitored and cleaned up. Officials in South Carolina and other states say they don’t have the staff to tackle their lists all at once.

That’s why DHEC culled the nine for the priority list to give staff direction on which ones to go after first.

The maximum daily load plan is just that, a plan not an order. A single source discharger, such as Charleston Water System’s Plum Island plant, which treats an average 19 million gallons of sewage per day, could be ordered to limit its discharges in the next permitting go-round, depending on the load plan. That move could affect treatment costs. But the pipe likely discharges too far into the harbor to be included in the load plan for Ellis Creek.

More fecal bacteria comes out of the creek than goes into it, said Andy Fairey, the system’s chief operating officer. “They recognize those (testing results) are due to localized runoff.”

The city of Charleston could have some responsibility because it is required to put in buffers and controls for some runoff. The decade-old federal runoff regulations that cities follow have made at least some inroads into the pollution, but are widely conceded not to be doing the job. The EPA was successfully sued and is currently reworking them.

But by and large, the job is and will be up to property owners themselves.

“Implementation of nonpoint source restoration plans is difficult because many of the controls, which are best management practices, are voluntary,” said Andrew Wunderley, the Charleston Waterkeeper. “It works best with strong support and interest from all stakeholders and local community members.”

The waterkeeper already is working with the residents on steps they can take.

“We’re just wanting to know what (the DHEC plan) is going to show,” Sperry said. “Water quality is important. If we are part of the problem we should be part of the solution.”

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.