Shem Creek — a popular Charleston Harbor waterway for boating, paddling or slipping in to cool down — is too dirty to swim.
Cleaning it up could soon be enforced by the state. And local governments, businesses and residents could end up paying under the stricter rules.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing its saltwater classification rules that allow the Mount Pleasant creek and at least 19 other salt waterways on the coast not to be as clean as others.
The department was forced to review its classification or be liable for legal action after a petition was filed by the nonprofit Charleston Waterkeeper.
It's all about fecal bacteria — human and animal waste.
As the rules stand, there are two classifications for how much of this bacteria can be in saltwater and most uses of the water still be allowed. One is five times stricter than the other, but both are designated for the same water activities, including swimming.
As an example, under the current rules, Shem Creek has been considered unsafe 9 percent to 33 percent of the time in six years of testing at various points in the stream, said Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper.
Under the stricter classification, it would fail from 28 percent to 80 percent of the time, he said.
Reclassifying the streams is expected by the petitioners, but it's not a given.
The move "is under consideration by the department" as part of a larger review, said spokeswoman Laura Renwick.
The staff recommendation is expected to go to the DHEC board Aug. 8. If approved, it would go to a public comment session then to a final vote in November.
It would also be required to go to legislative review, she said.
Starting the review process is the step required by law to pass the more stringent standard, said attorney Amy Armstrong, with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, which filed the petition for the waterkeeper. The DHEC board and Legislature don't often make significant changes or reject the agency's proposed regulations, she said.
"Water quality standards are the foundation that all South Carolina's water quality protections are built upon," Wunderley said. "Having the right ones in place is critical, especially for bacteria because folks that swim, paddle, and sail can get sick. It’s a public health issue."
By law, DHEC has to hold polluters accountable to meet those standards, he said. That could mean imposing tougher permit limits for stormwater dischargers, improving stormwater infrastructure, septic removal and sewer hookup programs, as well as suburban and urban wildlife management programs that include handling pet waste.
Shem Creek is among a growing list of waterways becoming more polluted as population and development expand along the Lowcountry's coast. Problems on the creek are thought to be exacerbated by older septic tanks that line its upper banks.
Other waterways with the lower standard classification include Charleston Harbor as a whole, Folly River, and Wappoo Creek, also called Elliott Creek, between West Ashley and James Island.
Water quality in the Charleston Harbor estuaries has been deteriorating for years while the monitoring has fallen off. 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 washing into the stream.
The petition comes as DHEC considers establishing a Total Maximum Daily Load plan for dealing with fecal bacteria in the creek. The maximum daily load plan is just that, a plan or a goal with little enforcement. The reclassification also would set a goal.
Both would make it tougher for property owners to get stormwater discharge permits.
Chris Crolley, of the Coastal Expeditions paddlesports outfitter and tour guide on Shem Creek, sees the issue from both sides, as a water enthusiast and a business owner who could be impacted.
"I think we pay for it in the long run, one way or the other," he said. "Shem Creek is becoming the gutter of Mount Pleasant's 'parking lot.'"
Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said he wanted to review the ramifications of a new rule for the town before making a comment.