Growth demands defense of water resources

James Island creeks flow into the Ashley River and Charleston Harbor. (Ed Buckley/Staff)

Rapid growth in the Charleston metro area means more people to house, more pavement to drive on, more lawns to maintain, more industry to provide jobs, more wastewater to clean. Those factors take a toll on water quality in the area’s tidal estuaries, rivers and harbor, eventually leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

But water quality monitoring has not kept up with population growth. Indeed, in some ways we know less about the pollutants, chemicals and bacteria in our marine environment than we did in the past, when it was under considerably less stress from growth and development.

Thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants flow into local streams and rivers each year, including dozens of dangerous and carcinogenic chemicals. Current monitoring efforts keep close tabs on only a small portion of those pollutants, and at a limited number of testing sites.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control tests water for a variety of bacteria, pollution, toxins and chemicals at 31 permanent locations in the tri-county area every two months. Twelve random sites are tested each year.

But at least 63 former permanent testing locations in the area are no longer monitored. That’s largely due to a recession-era restructuring of the DHEC water quality testing program in 2009.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency also provide periodic reports, but only every few years.

Charleston Waterkeeper, a non-profit organization, has stepped in to fill some of the gap, monitoring fecal bacteria at 14 recreational landings in the area around Charleston Harbor.

But while the information from those public and private groups is vitally useful, it doesn’t provide a clear enough picture of the overall health of Charleston’s water resources. And there doesn’t appear to be any organized strategy in place to improve oversight.

In light of ongoing population growth, that needs to change.

Tri-county governments should work to develop a unified plan that would help minimize the impact of future development on coastal waters. It should include intensive studies of water quality in areas facing particularly rapid growth to monitor shifts in pollutants and detect dangerous trends.

Any community-wide management plan must also mandate special caution in further developing waterfront properties to ensure that streams and rivers are protected from run-off by substantial buffers of marsh and native vegetation. And it should continue broad support for programs like the Charleston County Greenbelt, the state Conservation Bank and public-private partnerships that work to preserve critical Lowcountry wetlands and green spaces.

Individuals who live near the water can help by reducing the amount of impervious surfaces — such as paved driveways — on their property, planting vegetation to control erosion and soak up excess rainwater, and limiting the use of fertilizers and other chemicals on lawns and gardens. Pet waste can also cause unhealthy spikes in fecal bacteria if not disposed of properly.

Taking such simple steps can dramatically improve the health of nearby bodies of water.

But it will take a concerted effort from Lowcountry leaders to ensure that population growth coincides with an unyielding defense of Charleston area streams, rivers and estuaries.