Fish dying in Lowcountry as river dries up

07/14/2014 10:14 PM

07/14/2014 10:14 PM

State wildlife biologists are investigating the extent of a fish kill on a Colleton County river that has dried up in places this summer.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says parts of the Little Salkehatchie River contain almost no water in main channels of the braided system. Only shallow pools remain in some areas of the river near the community of Lodge between Columbia and Charleston, according to reports the agency has gotten.

“There is basically no flow in the Colleton County section of this river,’’ DNR biologist Chris Thomason said Monday night.

The Little Salkehatchie River merges with the main stem of the Salkehatchie to form the Combahee River, one of the cornerstones of the ACE Basin nature preserve in the Lowcountry.

So far, it’s unclear how many fish have died, but a variety of species likely have been affected, according to the DNR. One local estimate placed the number of dead fish in the hundreds. The fish kill, discovered over the weekend, likely resulted from a lack of oxygen, according to DNR. Some fish are visible from the S.C. 64 bridge near Lodge, several local residents said.

Fletcher Brabham, who grew up fishing on the Salkehatchie River system, questioned whether agricultural withdrawals are affecting water levels. In the past decade, river levels seem more susceptible to sharp drops, he said. Either way, the river is a sad sight, he said. Water levels have dropped so much in the past month he can no longer put a boat in, he said.

“It’s puddles of water with dead fish just floating everywhere,’’ Brabham, 39, said. “Hundreds are on the bottom that haven’t even started floating yet. What’s worse than that is to watch the schools of fish that are still alive sitting there atop the water gasping, coming up trying to get air. They need that flowing water for oxygen.’’

Thomason and Ross Self, DNR’s freshwater fisheries chief, said people are particularly sensitive to low river flows because of concerns that have surfaced about agricultural withdrawals from rivers in parts of South Carolina.

But Thomason said he doesn’t know of any major withdrawals tied directly to the dwindling flow of the Little Salkehatchie. He said the dying fish are more likely the victims of naturally dropping water levels in an area of the state that needs more rain.

Water levels also have been down at times this summer on other coastal plain rivers, including the South Fork of the Edisto, he said.

“It’s not surprising with as little rain as we’ve had in the area during the past month,’’ Thomason said.

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