Volunteer Water Monitoring Program

Murrells Inlet

Since June 2008, four teams of volunteers have been measuring water quality biweekly at eight sites in the Murrells Inlet watershed. The US EPA has been promoting volunteer monitoring since the 1970s for two reasons. First, it enables collection of data that most state agencies are too underfunded to obtain on their own. Second, it engages the community in a stewardship activity that promotes environmental awareness and responsibility.

As of 2006, the federal Clean Water Act requires the counties and cities in the Grand Strand to reduce polluted stormwater runoff by developing and implementing their own stormwater management plans. The US EPA recognizes volunteer monitoring as an important component of these local efforts. For this reason, the town of Surfside Beach, Georgetown and Horry counties are jointly funding the Murrells Inlet volunteer monitoring program.

The science plan for the MI monitoring program has the following goals: (1) Identify hot spots on land that are significant sources of polluted runoff to the Inlet and (2) Provide baseline data that will document improvements in water quality as stormwater management activities are implemented.

In the start-up phase of the program, the core planning group elected to focus efforts on the freshwater ends of MI’s tidal creeks for three reasons: (1) they deemed it a high priority to find and clean up land-based problems, (2) they did not want the volunteers to have to worry about tidal effects which would require changing sampling times through the year, and (3) they wanted to start with a relatively small number of people, necessitating selection of a small number of sites (six in the tidal creeks and two in inlet waters). Later phases of the program are expected to include more sampling sites and more types of measurements.

A volunteer stands by a pond Monitoring is currently being conducted by more than 15 trained volunteers. Bob Steffens serves as the field leader. CCU provides technical assistance through two volunteer monitoring coordinators, Kelly Hall and Victoria Green, and a project leader, Dr. Susan Libes. The stormwater managers in Horry and Georgetown County have been serving as a type of advisory board, but there is need to expand this core planning group to include more members of the community.

The pollutants targeted for the initial phase of this program are the ones that have been identified globally and nationally as major threats, namely, the ones that cause eutrophication, hypoxia, sedimentation, and bacterial contamination. The latter causes closure of shellfish beds and swimming advisories. Hypoxia causes fish kills and the death of other marine animals due to lack of oxygen. Eutrophication, caused by the release of nutrients into seawater, promotes overgrowth of algae whose dead biomass fuels oxygen depletion. Nutrient loading can also promote harmful algal blooms. The major source of nutrients include: over use of fertilizers and decomposing septage, including pet waste. The largest source of sediment is from soil erosion.

Sediment is a pollutant because it can kill filter feeding animals and bury bottom dwellers. Pollutants, such as bacteria and PAHs, also tend to adhere to sediments, making them an important transport agent. Sediments can also be enriched in organic matter, adding to oxygen demand.

To address these pollutants, the volunteers are measuring: dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, conductivity, pH, nutrients, turbidity, and E. coli. Most of these pollutants have water quality standards promulgated by SC DHEC.

Other well known pollutant problems in Murrells Inlet include toxic chemicals, such as PAHs, that are a component of road construction materials. Stormwater leaches these chemicals from the road beds and carries them into the creek where they are incorporated in the sediments. In many communities, roads comprise most of the impervious cover and hence are a major source of polluted runoff. As a result, SC DOT is now required to have its own stormwater management plan.

The current plan is to disseminate the MI volunteer monitoring data online, via exhibits at various MI events, and in newsletters and via brochures. If interest merits, an annual data conference will be held.

Interested in Volunteering?

If you are interested in participating, please contact the Murrells Inlet Field Leader