The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is seeking nearly $1 million next year to expand its water-quality monitoring program, which critics say has become so threadbare that regulators are having trouble determining how clean rivers and lakes really are.
DHEC officials say the money is needed to help restore the water-monitoring program after years of budget cuts. If the money is approved by the Legislature, the agency says it will check the quality of some rivers and streams more often. The state now checks many only six times a year.
“This funding request will allow us to sample every month,’’ DHEC director Catherine Heigel recently told a House budget subcommittee. “Twelve samples a year ... is going to produce a more robust and representative data set as it relates to water quality.’’
Having accurate and comprehensive data can help the agency determine whether to develop cleanup plans for contaminated rivers. It also can help remove clean rivers that have wound up on lists of contaminated waterways, agency officials said in budget documents.
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According to plans, DHEC is seeking $945,000 for 16 additional staff members and supplies. The agency now has 23 people who work on water-quality monitoring. Records show that in 2007, the state had 311 permanent freshwater monitoring stations. But as of early 2015, DHEC had just 245.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said he’s glad DHEC is seeking to beef up the water-monitoring program. His organization is among a handful across the state that sample water quality, in part to fill in gaps left by DHEC’s failure to check some waterways.
Other organizations checking water quality include the Charleston Waterkeeper, which at one point was spending $60,000 annually on work related to water monitoring.
Every quarter, Stangler checks spots in the Saluda, Broad and Congaree rivers and their tributaries to see how good — or bad — the water quality is. Sometimes, the results are disturbing. After a recent rain, Stangler said samples he took showed “really high bacteria numbers’’ in some urban Columbia streams.
Stangler said he monitors several creeks in Columbia that DHEC doesn’t check very often.
One of those is Rocky Branch, a stream that runs through Five Points, the University of South Carolina campus and past Capital City Stadium, before emptying into the Congaree River. Because DHEC doesn’t have a monitoring station, it doesn’t have the information needed to develop a formal cleanup plan for the creek, he said.
Earlier this year, Stangler urged state lawmakers to help DHEC beef up the program. He noted that the agency sometimes says it is safe to swim in areas that are contaminated because it doesn’t have enough data. That includes part of Crane Creek, where 22 sewage spills dumped more than 1 million gallons of tainted wastewater during a recent two-year period.
The funding request is part of DHEC’s overall budget proposal to increase state money for the department by $35 million in fiscal year 2016-17. The agency says many programs, like water quality monitoring, have suffered painful budget cuts in the past decade that have resulted in cuts to services.