Environmental nonprofit: Grand Strand beach water has highest levels of bacteria in SC

mprabhu@thesunnews.comJune 26, 2013 

  • Beach water quality in Horry County

    Percentage of samples with higher bacteria levels than allowed by state standards, according to Natural Resources Defense Council

    • Myrtle Beach State Park and campgrounds: 20 percent

    • Surfside Beach: 19 percent

    • Myrtle Beach: 17 percent

    • North Myrtle Beach: 11 percent

    • Briarcliffe Acres Beach: 9 percent

    • Arcadia Beach: 9 percent

    • Garden City Beach: 5 percent

    • Springmaid Beach: 0 percent

— Beach water in Horry County exceeded the national standards for bacteria levels 15 percent of the time in 2012 – the highest rate in the state, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

South Carolina ranked 26 out of the 30 states along the nation’s shores, which include the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes in beach water quality. The NRDC is a nonprofit environmental organization.

According to the report, NRDC collected S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control data to use in the study and samples are deliberately taken in swashes and outfalls, where water quality is expected to be poorest.

According to the report, 20 percent of the 90 samples collected at Myrtle Beach State Park and campgrounds in 2012 exceeded state standards for the amount of bacteria that is allowed in the water. Of 152 samples taken in Surfside Beach, 19 percent exceeded state standards; in Myrtle Beach, 17 percent of the 690 samples taken exceeded the standards.

Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said there’s no reason for people to be alarmed by the numbers in the report.

“Our beaches are healthy and suitable for all beachgoers,” he said. “The numbers might be intended to alarm some beachgoers … but I don’t anticipate anyone will be scared away by this.”

He added that the chamber doesn’t view NRDC as an objective entity because it lobbies for environmental issues.

“Consider the source first,” Dean said.

This is the 23rd year for NRDC’s rankings of beach water quality in popular vacation destinations, which the group releases just before the July Fourth holiday so travelers can see how their favorite beach destinations fare in terms of water quality. The group urges federal authorities to set beachwater quality standards.

Susan Libes, a professor of marine chemistry at Coastal Carolina University, questioned the way the analysis was done.

“It seems they’re using a uniform approach to handle the data from across the country,” she said. “I don’t even know if [the samples are] a representation of the beaches.”

Libes is part of a team from Coastal Carolina University that conducts year-round sampling at monitoring sites within Myrtle Beach city limits.

City of Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said NRDC changed the methodology for producing the report this year, making it hard for him to compare this year’s rating to previous years.

“We’ve been labeled a ‘Beach Buddy’ in years past – [meaning] they liked what we were doing,” he said.

This year, NRDC rated Myrtle Beach two out of five stars in its star system, which awards popular beaches that have low violation rates and strong testing safety practices, according to the organization’s website. Kruea said the city was rated two stars last year and qualified for three stars in the past.

“But the system has changed,” he said.

The NRDC pointed to stormwater projects along the Grand Strand as ways beachfront communities are working to improve beach water quality.

“I’m glad that they recognize the importance of the deepwater outfalls,” Kruea said.

Myrtle Beach will begin construction this fall on a deepwater outfall at Fourth Avenue North that will combine nine existing stormwater drainage pipes that used to empty at the beach into one large pipe that runs underneath the sea bed and into the Atlantic Ocean and out more than 1,200 feet. That project is expected to cost $10 million.

In a statement, S.C. DHEC said it agreed with the data summaries in the report.

“The NRDC report notes that, ‘states commonly will prioritize monitoring near suspected pollution sources, which can lead to higher exceedance rates. But identifying locations with high contamination levels is a responsible practice that helps local authorities protect swimmers from exposure to pathogens,’ ” according to the statement. “The state of South Carolina will continue to monitor beaches in a responsible manner that provides the greatest protection practical to the beach going public.”

Kruea and Libes said people recognize there is an issue with beach water quality and things need to be done to improve it.

In addition to speaking of the importance of stormwater outfalls, the NRDC recommended low-impact – or green – development.

In a conference call Wednesday morning discussing the findings, Jon Devine, senior water attorney for NRDC, said development that includes green roofs, porous pavement and street plantings, stop rain where it falls.

Libes said those are viable options for the Grand Strand to reduce the amount of bacteria in stormwater.

“It’s effective at removing bacteria – rain gardens and vegetated shelves along stormwater ponds,” she said. “People are aware of what has worked in other locations and hopefully will put some of them into practice.”

Contact MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_MPrabhu.

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