Sullied Shem Creek Waterkeeper says it’s too polluted to swim, urges faster cleanup

A standup paddleboarder travels Shem Creek on Tuesday in Mount Pleasant.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Shem Creek waters are too polluted for people to be playing in, Charleston Waterkeeper contends. The conservation activist has petitioned state regulators to reclassify the creek in order to get it cleaned up quicker.

The petition is an alarm bell for a destination where town residents and businesses are battling over development. It could result in more restrictions in buffers, discharges and building to make the water safer to use.

The creek is tightly packed by restaurants, docks and residences, and heavily used by kayakers, paddleboarders and others. It’s a fishing and shrimping hub that draws dolphins, pelicans and manatees among a host of other estuarine animals.

But it repeatedly shows unsafe levels of fecal bacteria — animal and human waste — in testing by the Waterkeeper chapter.

“The risk of getting sick really depends on when and where you swim — water quality is the worst after it rains and on outgoing tides,” said Andrew Wunderley, the waterkeeper. He recommended that if people do go in the water, they shower and clean up afterward.

Recent conditions can be found in testing data at charlestonwaterkeeper.org.

The rating assigned to the creek by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is based on a standard that is not geared to recreational use. A more accurate classification would rate it more impaired, making it a higher priority for regulators, he said.

The standard used “minimizes the severity of the bacteria impairment and de-emphasizes the creek for restoration work. This is a concern because Shem Creek is so heavily used for water-based recreational activity,” Wunderley said.

DHEC acknowledged the shortcoming.

“Waterbodies are classified into different groupings, each having different targets for use of the water, such as trout waters, traditional freshwaters, shellfish harvesting, and each having different pollutant targets,” said spokesman Robert Yanity.

“In the case of Shem Creek, our monitoring data indicates the water does not consistently meet the bacteria standard. The request from the Waterkeeper is to have a more stringent bacteria standard for the creek through the reclassification process,” he said.

DHEC is evaluating the request.

Reclassification isn’t commonly done and takes one to two years, Yanity said. If staff approves, it would go to the DHEC board and the state Legislature for approval, and then the federal Environmental Protection Agency for review.

Shem Creek is just one of the tidal streams feeding Charleston Harbor that recurrently shows unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. The water quality in the harbor estuaries has been deteriorating for years, while the monitoring has fallen off and efforts to maintain it for fishing or swimming haven’t stopped the degradation, The Post and Courier reported in 2015.

Sewer system discharge, rain runoff and litter are increasing as population growth and development turn a coastal town into a city.

The Charleston Waterkeeper has been monitoring for fecal bacteria at the creek among more than a dozen popular boat landings, beaches and stream sites in the harbor basin for the past two years. Its report last year recommended against swimming in nine areas, including Shem Creek, and advised caution on a 10th.

The sampling site on the creek at the Coleman Boulevard bridge continues to fail to meet the standard for recreation because of fecal bacteria, Wunderley said in 2015. It hadn’t been sampled by the state since 2011, DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley confirmed then.

Between 2009 and 2011, DHEC’s funding was cut across the board and water-quality programs were affected, Beasley said. DHEC’s strategy for 2015 in the harbor basin called for sampling 10 sites six times per year and a random site once per month, while leaving 15 inactive sites.

“The foundation of the Clean Water Act’s protections is the water quality standard. Standards are set by first examining the use of a waterway and then developing water-quality criteria that support the uses. When waterway uses change, so should water-quality standards. Otherwise the Clean Water Act’s protections fail,” Wunderley said Tuesday.

The petition resulted from the 2015 sampling. The sampling also showed the water quality for water-based recreational activity has declined at four other locations: Hobcaw Creek in Mount Pleasant, The Cove behind Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach boat landing and Melton Peter Demetre Park on James Island, Wunderley said.

He attributed the declines to the aftermath of the October floods.

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