Watershed samples show water quality unsafe for swimming in Charleston

Published: Nov. 8, 2021 at 1:59 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 8, 2021 at 8:05 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Nearly half of the samples taken in Charleston watersheds show water quality that’s unsafe for swimming.

Forty-one percent of samples taken by Charleston Waterkeeper over the 2021 sample season fail to meet the state’s water quality standard for safe recreational use, Charleston Waterkeeper officials say.

“What the issue is there, folks are really risking getting sick, getting ear, nose and throat infections, skin infections, gastroenteritis, that kind of thing from contact with the water from swimming, fishing, crabbing or those types of activities,” Charleston Waterkeeper Executive Director Andrew Wunderly says.

Charleston Waterkeeper tests the quality of water in different locations in the Charleston area weekly, including at Northbridge Park in West Ashley, the Folly Beach Public Boat Landing, Filbin Creek and Daniel Island Children’s Park.

“We wrapped the 9th season of our ‘Recreational Water Quality Monitoring’ program,” he says. “We test bacteria levels every Wednesday from May to the end of October at 20 different sites, and then we report that data to the public. That way, folks who like to swim and fish and paddle and crab can make informed decisions about when and where it’s safe to engage in those activities.”

This latest data is comparable to what they’ve seen over the years, Wunderly says.

“It’s about on par unfortunately with previous years,” he says. “We’ve been doing the sampling for 9 years now, and we’re generally between 30-40 percent of samples that fail.”

The cause of the failing water quality standards can be attributed to multiple factors, Wunderly says.

“The issue is we’ve changed the relationship between the land and the water in the Lowcountry,” he says. “We’ve packed the land with houses and buildings and strip malls and roads and parking lots, and the water can’t infiltrate through the ground and the natural soils can’t absorb and filter that water.”

Faulty and aging septic tanks are also negatively impacting water quality, Wunderly says.

“We find a lot of old septic tanks that haven’t been regularly maintained and they’re actually leaching bacteria and human waste into the nearest creek,” he says.

In terms of tackling the water quality issue, Wunderly says there are some solutions like picking up waste after dogs, allowing water to filter through the soil, pumping out and inspecting your septic tank.

“Simple things like that can go a long way in protecting water quality,” he says. “But on the regional scale, we need to be looking for ways to limit the amount of impervious surface cover and make sure we’re infiltrating stormwater and not just washing it off into the nearest creek or river.”

For a more detailed look at the bacteria levels in specific locations in Charleston, visit Charleston Waterkeeper’s website.

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