Idalia likely to have brought bacteria to waterways

Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 4:50 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 31, 2023 at 7:45 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - After Idalia dropped hours of heavy rains on the Lowcountry, the Charleston Waterkeeper is warning people of the dangers that may be in the waterways for the days after the storm.

Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderly says heavy rains of any kind usually bring sickness-causing bacteria with them.

“All of that water has to drain away and when it drains away, it picks up everything that’s on the ground. So that can be bacteria,” Wunderley says. “It can be pesticides, herbicides, you know, hydrocarbons, trash, debris, everything gets washed into the nearest creek or river and there’s no treatment on that.”

His office has been testing a variety of waterways weekly every summer for ten years. Their results go into an online swim report that advises people about bacteria levels and where is safe to swim.

He says the storm closed the College of Charleston lab they use for testing, so while there is no report from this week, all the data so far this year is available on their report site. Wunderley says despite not having the readings, people should assume there are elevated levels of bacteria in the water for 48 hours after Idalia.

“Historically, the data sets are really clear when we have big rainstorms and big floods. We see very high bacteria levels and local waterways and that trend holds across all 10 years of our sampling efforts,” Wunderley says.

South Carolina’s safe standard limit is no more than 104 cultures of bacteria per 100 milliliters. The swim alert reports the numbers for each site, and numbers that exceed the limit are red to indicate danger.

Bacteria is a danger to people if it enters their body, which is why the waterkeeper says swimming with your eyes, ears and nose getting in the water is a bad idea during elevated levels.

“If you have cuts or open wounds or sores, don’t go in the water that’s open an open pathway for pathogens to get into your system and really get you sick. And so it’s important to understand what you could come into contact with right things like Vibriosis, cholera, tuberculosis, staff…I mean there’s some really nasty pathogens that have been identified in our local waterways.”

Wunderly says the natural current and tides should flush out the elevated levels of sickness-causing bacteria by the Labor Day Weekend. But he warns that there are hotspots around the area that routinely test as unsafe for swimming, and that should always be taken into consideration.

“Hotspots, you know, areas where we typically see high bacteria during rain rainstorms: Shem Creek, James Island Creek, Philbin Creek and North Charleston is a real big hotspot. Also, the Northbridge Park area and the Ashley River and the Brittlebank Park area on the Ashley River also show elevated levels of bacteria during and after heavy rainstorms,” Wundeley says.

For example, Filbin Creek has exceeded the limit on every test done this summer. Its sample numbers range from about 250 to more than 12,000 cultures which is well above the 104 limit.

Wunderley says if you do swim make sure you clean off thoroughly after getting out of the water. He says if you are still nervous about swimming over the weekend, you can always participate in activities like kayaking and paddleboarding where you have less contact with the water.