Bacteria levels high enough to make people sick showed up in recent water samples at Rocky Branch, an urban stream that empties into the Congaree River.
It was the latest in a series of test results indicating that Rocky Branch is polluting the big river where people swim, fish and wade.
But no one would know about the pollution if they depended on the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC doesn’t test the creek near the Congaree.
Instead, the job has largely fallen on the Congaree Riverkeeper group, a non-profit environmental organization. The group spends at least $5,000 a year checking rivers and creeks like Rocky Branch in an attempt to keep the public informed about water quality.
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“One of our core values is protecting the river,’’ said Chris Kueny, a riverkeeper organization board member. “We noticed DHEC wasn’t taking water quality samples as often as it should have, so we launched our own water quality monitoring program.
“Without that, there are certain things that would have gone undetected.’’
DHEC doesn’t monitor water quality as aggressively as it once did because of legislative efforts to cut taxes and limit government. The agency this year has $1 million less to operate the water monitoring program than it did about a decade ago. That has meant fewer people to do the work and reductions in the amount of water tests the agency conducts.
The agency’s struggle to test water for pollution “is a great example’’ of South Carolina’s failure to adequately fund government programs during the past decade, said Rep. James Smith, D-Richland.
“DHEC now has to depend upon the work of a non-profit,’’ he said.
While an increase in funds is expected in next year’s state budget for DHEC’s water monitoring program, agency director Catherine Heigel said that will only get it back to a basic level of service. Any chances of expanding the program to include streams like Rocky Branch aren’t likely, the agency says.
Heigel said groups like the Congaree Riverkeeper fill gaps in information about the quality of state waterways.
“We welcome partnerships,’’ Heigel said of the riverkeeper’s efforts. “The more educated and informed folks are, the better.’’
Eight of the nine locations the riverkeeper group checks each quarter are spots DHEC does not test for water quality problems, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said. In addition to the riverkeeper group, which has been testing water quality since 2012, the city of Columbia also is taking samples in some places where DHEC is not. That includes Rocky Branch, but not in the same location the riverkeeper monitors.
Contamination found in Columbia’s creeks and rivers comes partly from rainwater that washes across streets, picks up bacteria and runs into the streams, Stangler said. Sewage leaks and discharges also contribute to the problem in some areas, he said.
Collecting information about polluted water helps Stangler’s group warn swimmers, boaters, waders and anglers when bacteria rise to unsafe levels. The riverkeeper group posts data on its website. DHEC has put up signs warning of water pollution at some problem spots, although others are not marked, Stangler said.
Stangler also said there are some places no one is monitoring regularly. In one urban stream, he has found regular sewage leaks where DHEC has reduced monitoring but where the agency still says it is safe to swim, he said.
Knowing about pollution levels in water could help guide state regulators on how to develop cleanup plans and place an emphasis on the need to stop sewage pipe leaks, Stangler said. Without water quality information, DHEC doesn’t have a true picture of how polluted or clean a river is, he said.
Stangler says the work his organization does is rewarding and important – but not always pleasant.
Sometimes, Stangler must wade into water he suspects is contaminated from leaking sewage pipes or polluted by drainage from city streets. Other times, he maneuvers a small boat to a wastewater pipe in a river to scoop up a sample. Test results sometimes later confirm that the water he stood or boated in was contaminated.
“There have been some bad days,’’ Stangler said with a smile.
Stangler, who started testing water soon after he became riverkeeper more than three years ago, takes extra precautions not to get water in his mouth, nose or on his skin. He wears latex hospital gloves while sampling, dons hip waders when walking into a stream, and keeps a healthy supply of hand sanitizer with him.
He recalls once pulling his boat close to a bubbling discharge pipe in the Saluda River, expecting to take a quick sample and head back to shore. But as he neared the pipe, an explosion of sewage greeted him.
“I’m looking around, then the discharge comes, shoots foam out of the pipe straight into my boat and all over me,’’ he said. “I kind of doused myself with hand sanitizer. It’s happened more than once. If you are not paying attention, they will get you.’’
Earlier this month, Stangler spent most of a drizzly, cool morning checking water samples in Gills Creek, Rocky Branch and Smith Branch, a stream that pours into the Broad River above one of Columbia’s main drinking water sources, the canal off of Broad River Road.
At Gills Creek, the only stream where both the riverkeeper and DHEC test, Stangler stepped through urban trash and debris and into waist deep water below a flood-wrecked title loan building.
From there, he took a sterile bottle, scooped creek water into it, sealed the top and pulled himself back onto the littered stream bank below Devine Street. Nearby, water poured from a drainage pipe into the creek.
Although DHEC also tests the water in another spot on Gills Creek, Stangler said his group believes the extra effort is worthwhile. The creek is the main stream running through urban Columbia. Thousands of people live in the watershed and many people fish in the water. Gills Creek drains into the Congaree River southeast of town.
An hour after visiting Gills Creek, Stangler was standing in water up to his thighs at Rocky Branch, perhaps one of the most bacteria-tainted creeks in the Columbia area.
The stream is effectively an urban catch basin for stormwater. Runoff pours into the small, stone-filled creek below Five Points at Maxcy Gregg Park, the University of South Carolina and Capital City Stadium next to an old Superfund cleanup site.
Stangler’s plunge into Rocky Branch was a particular challenge. The creek bank dropped down about 10 feet to the surface of the water where Stangler planned to sample. He half-slid down the steep bank to reach the water. High above him, two massive sewage pipes crossed over the creek.
While the creek looked uninviting on a rainy morning, Stangler said it’s surprising how many people spend time near the mouth of Rocky Branch at the Congaree River on warm, sunny days.
“People wade down here, fish down here,’’ Stangler said. “It’s kind of a shallow spot on the river for people to hang out. But it’s an urban stream that has a lot of water quality problems.’’
Laboratory results of the water sample Stangler collected May 19 at Rocky Branch showed bacteria levels about four times higher than the standard for safe swimming.
The bacteria found in the water were E. coli, an indicator of disease-carrying pollutants. Certain strains of E. coli can give people diarrhea and cause urinary tract infections or pneumonia, according to DHEC. The biggest concern in recreational areas is people getting the microbe in their mouths.
Stangler’s recent test results are consistent with past readings at Rocky Branch. Data he’s collected since 2012 show elevated bacteria levels at Rocky Branch, spiking above safe swimming standards during some tests in 2012 and 2013, and coming close to exceeding the standard twice in 2014.
Stangler found similar results from water quality samples he took that day in Smith Branch. The creek runs through heavily developed North Columbia and has been known to wash piles of trash downstream and into the Broad River near the Columbia Canal. In September 2013, water monitoring data show bacteria at more than five times the safe standard. Results from May 19 show bacteria levels at four times the standard.
All told, five sample sites he checked earlier this month showed elevated bacteria levels. May testing also documented high bacteria in the Saluda River near Saluda Shoals, a section of the Broad River and at Twelve Mile Creek.
Although a number of environmental groups periodically test water that DHEC does not, relatively few have comprehensive programs to regularly check samples. And few are formally certified by DHEC to test water quality.
In addition to the Congaree Riverkeeper, the Charleston Waterkeeper is among those that are both certified and routinely test water. The group has documented elevated bacteria levels in salt marsh creeks where people recreate around Charleston.
The Izaak Walton League, a national environmental organization, recently completed a report saying that volunteer groups are important in learning about the quality of rivers and streams. The league’s report said South Carolina needs at least 2,500 stations to monitor for water quality, but it has only a fraction of that.
DHEC cut the number of permanent monitoring sites around the state from 311 in 2007 to 245. The agency also cut out monthly testing in some spots. With more money in next year’s budget, the agency hopes to add 16 staff members to bolster its existing staff of 23. The agency hopes to again test many of its 245 sites monthly.
Still, the Walton League report says South Carolina has plenty to do. It gave South Carolina mixed marks on its water quality testing program, noting that DHEC doesn’t test enough for chemicals.
“Not only does the state need to monitor thousands more sites to adequately and accurately assess water quality, it has uneven water quality standards and infrequently conducts chemical monitoring,’’ the league’s report said. The report went on to say that “Volunteers can help close the gaps in public knowledge about the health and safety of South Carolina’s rivers and streams, and can move the state closer to actually monitoring all of its waterways.’’
Stangler said his group plans to expand its testing program this summer at Crane Creek.
“Right now, I’m only doing quarterly sampling, but we identified this as a budget priority,’’ he said.