Charleston Waterkeeper comes to James Island Creek (a.k.a. Ellis Creek)

Mary Edna Fraser, Self Portrait, batik on silk, 102" x 36", 2005

Last friday morning we (Mary Edna Fraser and Celie Dailey) met with Cyrus Buffum and Andrew Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper to learn what issues are causing fecal contamination in our creek, what can be done about it, and to answer the still-lingering question about if we can safely swim in James Island Creek (a.k.a. Ellis Creek).

It’s hard to know the exact amount of contamination in our creek partly because there is only one DHEC monitoring station here. This station shows that more than 10% of fecal coliform samples exceed DHEC’s standard for recreation. Fecal coliform is a “bacterial indicator” meaning that it’s related to the amount of fecal contamination in a body of water—it’s the current bacteria sampled in our creeks and rivers to test for fecal contamination, but enterococcus has been shown to be a better indicator since it became the federal standard in 2004. Charleston Waterkeeper is working to implement a water quality monitoring program that would test for enterococcus as well as expanding the number of monitoring stations around our area.

Sources of fecal contamination are many — warm blooded animals including pets and wildlife that pollute runoff, poorly maintained septic tanks, marine sanitation devices, and poorly treated discharges from sewage treatment plants all may contribute to fecal contamination. It is often difficult to pinpoint which sources are most problematic.

We are still uncertain if our local waterway is safe for swimming, but we know that there are serious threats to our water quality locally and regionally. Some homes on James Island Creek are quite new and served by sanitary sewers, but many older homes have septic tanks. Though a properly functioning septic tank is good at treating sewage, the high cost of maintenance and replacement means that some older systems may be contributing to fecal contamination. Another issue to examine is the implementation of vegetative buffers around drainage ditches and property that borders James Island Creek to limit runoff.

It will take the efforts of our community to improve local water quality. Our initial goal is to document our creeks and teach others to do the same. We plan to canoe at low and high tide, photographing and taking notes about our creek and sharing our observations with Charleston Waterkeeper. We first need to build a contact list and distribute educational information to those living on James Island Creek to build a constituency. DHEC’s goal for creating a plan to improve our water quality is not until 2019. This tells us nothing about when that plan might be implemented or how long it might take to show improvement in water quality. If we begin to document our creek now, this will expedite the study of contamination sources and precipitate improvements. We cannot wait seven years to begin this process because we love to play in our creek.

We hope to create a model of how creek clean-up can work locally. That begins with you. Please e-mail to get on our James Island Creek mailing list so that you can attend our initial event at Mary Edna’s studio this November and receive important information. There is a host of educational material to absorb and scientists to interview so we will keep you posted.

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One Comment

  1. Julian Buxton
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I grew up on the creek, swimming, skiing, fishing and shrimping. I still enjoy swimming in it when I visit my mother who lives on North Shore Drive. I did not even know there was a problem. Please sign me up! I will pass this on to my mother.

    Julian Buxton

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