4 Charleston waterway sites show initially-high bacteria levels

As the summer season begins, the Charleston Waterkeeper is kicking off its weekly Swim Alert testing along 20 sites across the Lowcountry.
Published: May. 5, 2023 at 3:00 PM EDT|Updated: May. 6, 2023 at 9:04 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - As the summer season begins, the Charleston Waterkeeper is kicking off its weekly Swim Alert testing along 20 sites across the Lowcountry.

Every Wednesday from May to October, teams for the Charleston Waterkeeper collect water samples from those sites. These recreation waterway samples are then taken to a lab, tested for bacteria indicators of pathogens and results are put out every Friday.

Last year 75% of the tests passed the state water quality standard. Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley says that’s a pretty good record. After the first test of 2023 season, a few elevated areas do still persist. These four sites exceeded the state’s safe levels for bacteria:

  • Filbin Creek
  • Two Shem Creek sites
  • One James Island Creek site

“The state standard for safe recreational uses 104 colony-forming units of bacteria per 100 ventilators. Now, you don’t need to know that; we make it really easy for you. If it’s red, that means it’s above that safe level, right? If it’s black, that means it’s below that safe level and everything’s OK,” Wunderley says.

Wunderley says it’s important data to help find trends in water quality, as well as something worth checking before you head out for a fun day of swimming or paddling.

Click here to read the full Charleston Waterkeeper report.

“We find some really high levels of bacteria that suggest the risk of illness is quite high,” Wunderly says. “And so after rainstorms after floods, in those situations, we can see bacteria levels that are 10, 15, 20 times the state standard for safe recreational use and so you could be exposed to some really nasty pathogens that can get you really sick.”

The bacteria indicators can represent the level of risk for getting diseases like tuberculosis, staff and cholera if people aren’t careful about where they enjoy the water. Wunderley says a few things cause these numbers to fluctuate, which is why people should check the report regularly.

“One is that rainfall and floods drive water quality. So that’s the pathway that pollution is getting into nearby creeks and rivers,” Wunderley says. “We see persistently high results in watersheds that have a lot of septic tanks, and so that can be a real significant source of bacteria and local waterways.”

The Waterkeeper office is actively campaigning for connecting people to sewer lines and reducing use of septic tanks.

“So there’s several ongoing projects right now run around James Island Creek and Ellis Creek and Shem Creek. We’d love to see some action around Filbin Creek - that’s our worst site by far. It very infrequently tests safe for swimming. And so we’d love to see the city in North Charleston, step up to the plate and take some action to make sure that safe. It’s a very popular spot,” Wunderley says.

He says it is encouraging that 16 of the 20 sites tested within limits, many well below, on the first week of the season and looks forward to tracking another year of trends in the waterways.