In the past two years, at least 22 sewage spills have fouled the waters of Crane Creek with more than 1 million gallons of untreated wastewater, according to records analyzed by a local river protection group.
But while state regulators post warning signs when spills occur, they say the North Columbia stream sometimes is safe for recreational uses, such as canoeing, swimming or wading.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler isn’t so sure. He says the state has little current data to judge how clean the creek is – and that’s why he says South Carolina needs to routinely monitor the creek to determine whether sewage is ruining water quality.
It’s part of a larger problem that he and other riverkeepers say is found across South Carolina: State regulators simply aren’t checking water quality as aggressively as they once did.
Budget cuts in recent years have curtailed South Carolina’s water monitoring program so much that regulators don’t always have quality information about the health of rivers and streams, Stangler said. They’re increasingly relying on old data that doesn’t give a clear picture of water quality, he said.
“This is very concerning because the sampling and the data ... are very important to let people know how healthy their water bodies are and whether or not their health is at risk,” Stangler said during a budget hearing this week with a legislative subcommittee.
Stangler urged lawmakers to consider more funding for the Department of Health and Environmental Control to check water quality.
He didn’t have a dollar figure because DHEC has not supplied one, but the agency did provide data showing that the program has taken a hit in recent years.
In 2007, the state had 311 permanent freshwater monitoring stations. Today, it has 245, according to DHEC records.
In addition to permanent stations, other monitoring stations that periodically rotated from one watershed to the next were discontinued altogether, DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said in an email to The State newspaper Friday.
One victim of the cuts is Crane Creek, a tributary of the Broad River where DHEC says it abandoned a monitoring station in 2010. Stangler said he has seen data showing that sampling was not occurring at the station as far back as 2004.
For stations still in use, DHEC has reduced the frequency with which it samples them. Instead of sampling monthly, the department now samples its permanent stations every other month, Beasley’s email said.
The lack of data worries not only Stangler, but his counterparts across South Carolina. Waterkeepers for the Catawba and Savannah rivers expressed similar concerns about the lack of monitoring, as did the waterkeeper organization for the Charleston area.
“They are not sampling often enough, and they are not sampling in enough places to really pin down where the problems are and when they occur,” Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said Friday.
Having accurate data helps in a variety of ways. State regulators can learn whether to permanently advise against swimming. Or they can develop cleanup plans for rivers. Bacteria is one of the main pollutants checked at monitoring sites, although some monitoring also is for other pollutants, such as metals.
The lack of data is also an issue in North Carolina, said Perkins, whose organization covers both states.
The recent national recession contributed to budget cuts that have affected a broad array of state agencies and services in multiple states, aside from water quality monitoring.
Sometimes, political pressure also prevented robust monitoring programs, Perkins said, noting that North Carolina turned down a federal monitoring grant recently related to fracking’s impacts on water quality. Politicians sometimes figure if they don’t have the data, they can assume the water is clean and not have to initiate programs to clean up rivers, he said.
“The presumption is that water quality is fantastic and fine, unless there is data to reveal otherwise,” Perkins said.
In some cases, universities and public interest groups have been sampling water.
The Charleston Waterkeeper organization now samples for bacteria at more than a dozen sites around the Holy City because DHEC monitoring is limited, said Andrew Wunderley, the group’s staff attorney. The waterkeeper spends about $60,000 annually – about one fourth of its budget – on work related to water monitoring, he said.
Its sampling occurs in areas where people are most likely to swim and launch boats, such as tidal creeks.
In the Columbia area, Stangler said better monitoring is vital for places such as Crane Creek. The stream, which begins near Blythewood, has in the past been polluted by failing septic tanks and leaking sewer pipes. Sediment from construction sites also washes into the water, according to Clemson University.
Crane Creek’s confluence with the Broad River also is upstream of the Columbia Canal, which provides drinking water to part of South Carolina’s largest city.
The creek, which runs through the northern part of town, empties into the Broad River near the Richland County Rowing Center. The center attracts college rowing teams each year from across the country.
John Worrell, president of the Columbia Rowing Club, said he was unaware of any problems with Crane Creek, but he has noticed a brown foamy material in the Broad River and wants to know what’s causing it.
“None of us know where it’s coming from,” he said. “It’s right near where we put our boats in near the I-20 bridge. It’s not there every day, but it doesn’t look like something that occurs naturally.”
Interestingly, DHEC did not ask the Legislature at last week’s hearing for additional money in the state budget for water monitoring, even though agency records show that cuts to the program have been an issue for years. In a 2014 water quality document, the department said state budget reductions were continuing to force monitoring efforts below historic levels.
Agency spokesman Beasley said DHEC “redesigned’’ the monitoring program in 2010 to allow for what he said is a “more consistent, statewide evaluation of water quality.” He noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reviews the state program annually.
Beasley’s email also said that aside from checking water quality in freshwater streams, the department has 123 sites along S.C. beaches that examine water quality, in addition to 101 sites statewide that analyze fish tissue.
Stangler said he’d been told by agency staff that DHEC needs 25 more positions to help beef up the monitoring program.
Rep. Murrell Smith, who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee that held Wednesday’s hearing, questioned why the agency didn’t ask his committee Wednesday for funds to improve the program during the meeting in Columbia.
“What was interesting to me was where reports stated that they were understaffed,” Smith, R-Sumter, said of DHEC. “Obviously dollars are scarce in the budget process. But if that is a public health concern, we need to make sure it is appropriately funded.”
Because of the questions raised, Smith had Ways and Means Committee staff members send a request to DHEC for more information.