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When it rains, fecal bacteria levels spike in Charleston area creeks -- including Shem Creek, Hobcaw Creek, and Ellis Creek (shown here on Thursday, June 22, 2017) -- along with rivers and the harbor. Wade Spees

There could be as many as 18 failing septic tanks lining the Shem Creek watershed in Mount Pleasant, potentially leaking harmful fecal bacteria into one of the town’s most popular recreational attractions. And that could be the best case scenario, considering that the town’s latest information is 10 years old.

But whether it’s due to failed septic systems or a simpler cause like animal waste left in backyards, levels of fecal bacteria reach dangerous levels in Shem Creek and other popular Charleston area waterways on a regular basis following rain, according to weekly testing data from Charleston Waterkeeper.

Fecal coliform bacteria can cause upset stomach, diarrhea, infection and rashes. Other, more harmful, viruses and bacteria such as salmonella and hepatitis are also often found in areas with elevated levels of fecal bacteria.

In other words, unsafe levels of fecal bacteria are a public health concern, and one that local officials need to work on cleaning up.

In Mount Pleasant, that effort is already starting. The town is considering implementing a warning system to provide an alert when levels of bacteria exceed safe levels in Shem Creek, and Mount Pleasant Waterworks has requested funding to connect more homes to the public sewer system.

A new study of the Shem Creek watershed is also underway.

Setting up a real-time monitoring station on the creek might be somewhat impractical, and bacteria levels can fluctuate quickly based on the weather, but it would be worth posting signs that warn people about the link between heavy rain and bacteria.

And switching from septic tanks to the town sewer system — or at least ensuring that septic systems are well-maintained and regularly serviced — would help keep the creek clean.

At least 189 septic tanks were in use in the Shem Creek watershed according to the town’s latest study, which is 10 years old. Anywhere from 10-30 percent of tanks statewide aren’t working properly at any given time, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Residents should also know that simply picking up animal waste in the yard can make a big difference in the levels of potentially unsafe bacteria carried into rivers and streams by rain.

As the region grows, pollution from stormwater runoff — including fecal bacteria — is going to be an increasingly serious challenge. Other municipalities should follow Mount Pleasant’s lead and help keep recreational waterways safe. After all, high water quality is an important part of the quality of life in the Charleston area.