Billy Shoemake joined a couple of alligators and long-legged birds on the sandy bank of the Little Salkehatchie River, all of them watching fish swim near the surface.
“I’ve fished these old swamps all my life, and you just don’t see this,” said Shoemake, taking a midday break Thursday in a sunny spot along the shallow river. “Those little gators, they’ll be fat as hogs next week. Easy pickins.”
People who live in Colleton County, where they depend on water to make a living, watched with concern earlier last week as the catfish, bream and large-mouthed bass in “the Salk” struggled to breathe and died. They were confined to tiny, shallow pools of water, as the drying riverbed in this stretch near the community of Lodge left almost no water in main channels of the braided system.
When hundreds of fish floated to the surface of the Little Salkehatchie, it seemed clear the coastal-plain county was teetering on the brink of a mid-July drought. But with a new potato operation sucking water out of the nearby Edisto River, they couldn’t help but wonder: Could there be something more to it? Are low flows on the Little Salkehatchie part of a larger problem with farm withdrawals in the Lowcountry of South Carolina?
People across the state have become sensitive about the fragility of rivers, particularly the small rivers subject to substantial drops in water levels. Recent droughts and the water needs of farms and industry mean quantity has become a bigger concern in recent years.
“What’s causing those low flows, there’s a lot of people making conjecture,” said Ross Self, chief fisheries biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Columbia.
But Self said the likely reason for low flows on the Little Salkehatchie was simply a lack of rain.
Central Colleton County had been bone dry through much of June, but a Tuesday night rain of 2-3 inches seemed to ease the situation in the Little Salkehatchie. The water was moving, though slightly, and few carcasses littered the banks and lush grasses around bridges.
Hotter summer temperatures and low rainfall totals routinely lower Lowcountry rivers this time of year, according to the DNR. So far this year, the Edisto and the Salkehatchie rivers are the two experiencing remarkably low levels.
Self, the biologist, said fish in the Little Salkehatchie died from a combination of low flows, high temperatures in sunny pools and reduced oxygen as leaves clogged and composted in the river swamp.
The rain seemed to relieve their plight for the time being.
But hundreds of dead fish caught the attention of people who care about rivers — and in Colleton County, that’s just about everybody, said Cecil Lachicotte, a real estate broker and hunter. After all, the economic drivers in Colleton County are timber, farming and hunting.
“Water is important to all of them,” said Lachicotte, who had stopped for lunch at the corner grocery store in Lodge.
Until Tuesday, it hadn’t rained in a month — and that proved fatal to the fish. “It’s a natural occurrence from time to time; it’s just one of those things,” he said. “We don’t like it.”
When the rain finally came, it brought down limbs from the shade trees in Mandy Nava’s front yard near the Little Salkehatchie. She didn’t mind. “I even put on Facebook, ... ‘It’s raining!’”
The weather forecast calls for more rain in coming days.
Self, DNR’s chief fisheries biologist, said the fish in the Little Salkehatchie will bounce back, though it may take a year to 18 months.
“’Normal’ is just what lies between drought and flood,” he said. “These populations have evolved to survive under these extreme conditions.”
Reporters Sammy Fretwell and Joey Holleman contributed. Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.