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Editorial: We know what's polluting James Island Creek. Now we need to fix it.

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Mike Marcell, left, and Andrew Wunderley ride along the James Island Creek on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

We finally know the main source of pollution that’s fouling James Island Creek: It’s not coming from Charleston’s Plum Island sewer treatment plant or from pet waste or even from wild animals but from the many faulty septic tanks along the creek banks. Now it’s time to address the problem and restore the health of the scenic creek.

The work won’t be quick or cheap; it will take years and likely cost several million dollars. But it’s necessary, and we’re encouraged that local and state officials say they are more focused on getting it done. We urge residents of James Island and beyond to hold them to their word.

The nonprofit Charleston Waterkeeper has done tests for bacteria counts in the creek for nine years to sound an alarm about the ongoing contamination. Last year, several local governments formed a task force to tackle the problem. That has led to a new watershed management plan, already approved by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, that offers a detailed picture regarding the sources of pollution and the actions necessary to improve water quality.

Adopting that plan would be a small but important first step for the city of Charleston, the town of James Island, the James Island Public Service District and Charleston County. Their support will be crucial to seeking grants and raising other funds to get more homes off septic tanks and hooked up to sewer lines. Other key actions include promoting the proper maintenance of septic tanks in the interim, as well as studying the island’s sewer lines to ensure they’re not part of the problem.

“My read is the public in and around James Island Creek is in a place where they’re looking for action,” said Charleston Waterkeeper executive director Andrew Wunderley, who is part of the task force. “I think what the public really wants to see is here’s something we’re doing to reduce the bacteria discharges into James Island Creek. And here’s another thing we’re doing. And here’s a third thing we’re doing.”

Aside from the major infrastructure work, the new plan also mentions more modest steps, such as pet waste management programs, educational campaigns and incentives to reduce paving on residential and commercial properties along the creek.

These deserve to be explored to see if their potential payoff would be worth their more nominal costs.

Charleston City Councilman Ross Appel said elected officials ultimately must find a way to raise the necessary money to do the larger work on septic tanks and sewer lines. “At the end of the day, I see this, at its core, as just as much of a public infrastructure issue as our stormwater system and roads.”

To that end, the task force leaders need to think beyond the design of specific projects and figure out how those projects might be paid for and how much affected homeowners ultimately will be expected to pay to hook into the new systems and pay their monthly sewer bills.

DHEC rewrote its regulations this year to give a more accurate picture for those who swim, kayak and fish in our waterways. Its change held all recreational saltwater bodies to the same standard for bacteria counts, so Shem and James Island creeks no longer were deemed OK even if they had 80% more bacteria than other bodies of water, such as the Ashley River.

That was a positive step. The new study pinpointing the pollution problem in James Island Creek is another one. We now know the problem and how to address it, so it’s time to do just that.

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