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ITK: Three threats facing our waters

Lowcountry Stormwater Partners looks at the health of our waterways.

Story by Barry Kaufman

It’s been a rallying cry in the Lowcountry for decades: above all else, protect our waters. This mantra fueled a group of citizens who famously opposed construction of a BASF plant in Bluffton in 1969, narrowly averting environmental catastrophe. It informed the Town of Bluffton’s stringent stormwater runoff rules, environmental safeguards that attempt to protect the May River against the area’s rapid growth.

It’s something to which we do far more than pay lip service, reflected in our everyday actions, whether its requiring pervious surfaces or taking extra care to properly fertilize our lawn. These little steps help protect our waterways, but there is always more we can do.

In support of its efforts to protect our waters, Lowcountry Stormwater Partners recently unveiled its extensive Stormwater Outreach Strategic Plan for the next five years which focuses efforts in three key directions. Partners include Clemson Extension Service, Beaufort County, the towns of Hilton Head, Bluffton and Port Royal, and the city of Beaufort. They work with residents and builders to reduce stormwater runoff.

“We started with a very broad subjects – pollutants – then narrowed it down to three target behaviors with three target audiences,” said Ellen Comeau, water resources agent for Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension. In her role, Comeau has dedicated herself to outreach, making every effort in the Lowcountry to improve our waterways. The strategic plan not only lays out the key targets for her outreach, it helps us as residents gauge where we could do more.

Threat One: Bacteria

All animal waste affects our water, and dogs are no exception. Your pet’s stool isn’t a fertilizer, like cow poop. It contains pathogens, which are illness-causing bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. If your pet’s waste ends up in our drinking, swimming, and fishing water, everyone is affected — humans, pets and wildlife.

The presence of fecal coliform has been a huge topic along the May River for years, and one that continues to be an issue despite the best efforts of many to educate the public.

“One of our target strategies is talking about pet waste,” said Comeau. “One not-so-fun fact is that pet waste contains 2.5 times more bacteria than human waste.”

Working from a rough estimate of 43,380 dogs in Beaufort County at an average of 4.2 pounds of waste a day, you’re looking at around 9 tons of canine fecal matter every day. “We have a great population here, but they need to clean up, every time. Even in your backyard.”

Comeau recommends cleaning up dog waste with biodegradable bags and disposing of them in the garbage. But it’s not just pet waste. Two further sources of bacteria in our waterways, according to Lowcountry Stormwater Partners, are poorly maintained septic tanks and boaters improperly disposing of their biological waste. Or, to put it in layman’s terms, the classic maritime “bucket and chuck it” method.

Threat Two: Nutrients

It might surprise you to learn that nearly none of the ponds you see on Hilton Head Island or in Bluffton are natural. In fact, each of these was created with the specific purpose of collecting stormwater and filtering out the excess nutrients they carry from yards and landscaping before they can reach our waters.

But more and more, these ponds are becoming overwhelmed by excess nutrients, disrupting the balance and hindering their ability to keep waters clean.

“If a pond is maintained well, natural processes will remove particulates. If a pond is not maintained well, they will build up and these ponds become pollutant sources,” said Comeau. A large part of maintaining these ponds lies in maintaining the natural buffers around them, rather than clear cutting right to the water’s edge. “Buffers act like sponges. The plant materials’ roots infiltrate the soil, giving another layer or protection.”

Beyond maintaining and replanting buffers around stormwater ponds, the strategic plan looks to encourage homeowners to monitor the amount of fertilizer they use on their yards. Excessive fertilizer runoff represents one of the biggest sources of excess nutrients in our waterways, and it’s the easiest to avoid. For just $6, you can have a soil sample tested by Clemson Extension, letting you lay down the exact amount of fertilizer to avoid runoff, save money, and grow a nicer looking lawn in the process.

Threat Three: Freshwater

Most stormwater runoff is conveyed directly to nearby streams, rivers or other water bodies without treatment.

The delicate salinity of our waterways is what contributes to the abundance of sea life that calls the Lowcountry home. Particularly in areas that have seen rapid growth, the runoff of rainwater into our waterways is disruptive to that salinity. This has been one of the main factors behind requirements for pervious surfaces in some areas, but there is more that we can do, particularly when it comes to construction sites.

“If residents are seeing improperly installed silt fences or muddy streets (around construction sites), we would love for them to report that to us,” said Comeau. These silt fences, the black sheets you’ll see ringing construction sites, help keep freshwater on the site itself. In addition to maintaining silt fences at construction sites, the strategic plan identifies promotion of pervious surfaces among design professionals as a goal going forward, as well as encouraging homeowners to mitigate their own runoff through rain gardens and rain barrels.

“Freshwater is the number one threat to our water quality,” said Comeau. “When it rains on impervious surfaces, it runs right into storm drains without any treatment.”

To learn more about how you can help keep our area waterways clean, go to and search for Lowcountry Stormwater Partners.