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Kayakers and stand up paddleboarders head back up Shem Creek after surrounding Crab Bank in Charleston Harbor on Sunday, September 30, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

Cleaning up Shem Creek is a worthy long-term goal. So is moving to a stricter water-quality standard for recreational use.

But we also should be talking about cleaning up all of Charleston Harbor and its many tributaries. They’re all connected and ruled by the tides. So you have to ask: How much good would it do to clean up what Shem Creek breathes out if we don’t do anything about what it breathes in?

Well, you have to start somewhere, and Shem Creek is as good of a place as any. Improving its water quality would take a sustained commitment by the town of Mount Pleasant as well as plenty of buy-in from businesses and homeowners.

Cleaning up the creek would mean getting more waterfront septic tank users to hook into the town’s sewer system, better managing runoff and a long-term effort to identify and eliminate other hot spots along the creek’s 4.6-square-mile watershed, among other measures.

The town is working to adopt an EPA-recommended plan for cleaning up the tidal creek, and Charleston Waterkeeper is pushing the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to adopt a stricter water-quality standard, which it is exploring.

If DHEC agrees to move to a stricter standard, pollution dischargers could then be put under a legal mandate to clean up their act.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” said Andrew Wunderley, executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper. “The town has known for years (about the creek’s poor water quality) and we can’t just sit around.”

Practically speaking, Mr. Wunderley said there are several obvious moves that would help improve water quality. The Shem Creek watershed contains about 110 septic tanks and, in some cases, sewer service is available right in front of the homes. The town and Mount Pleasant Waterworks could provide a mechanism and an incentive to phase-out septic tanks, like Folly Beach has done. And the town could better regulate runoff pollution through its stormwater permitting process.

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Shem Creek boosters, however, shouldn’t have any illusions that this would be a quick fix. As it is, pathogen-indicating bacteria counts are way beyond the state’s current standard for recreation and many times higher than the stricter standard Charleston Waterkeeper wants DHEC to adopt.

That’s obviously a concern, though not necessarily a reason to stay away from a popular recreation waterway. Rather it’s a warning that a long-term clean-up is crucial.

Cleaning up Shem Creek would be a significant first step toward cleaning up the rest of Charleston Harbor and similar nearby waterways. That’s something all Charleston-area governments should push for. Let Charleston Waterkeeper and the town of Mount Pleasant lead the way.

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