Water testers keep eye on Murrells Inlet health

On a cold and rainy January morning, Dona Ducker rolls up her pant legs, puts on a pair of boots and wades into the water. She scoops some of the water with a bucket on the end of a stick and totes it back to shore, trying not to spill.

A few minutes later, hands red with cold, Jeanne Weinreich meticulously writes down numbers on a paper made soggy from rain dripping off her hood, as Ducker calls them out.

The numbers come from equipment measuring data about the water in and flowing to the inlet, like the amount of E.coli, dissolved oxygen and pH levels.

Weinreich and Ducker are part of a group of volunteers who have been monitoring water quality in the Murrells Inlet area for around two years.

"They're not just volunteers. They're citizen scientists," said Ken Hayes, the coordinator of the Coastal Carolina University-run program.

The local monitoring fills the gaps in state and federal monitoring programs and gives direction to local governments, he said.

And the work of the volunteers is held to high standards, said Hayes.

He said they have eight sites they sample from twice a month. He can remember only once that the testing was postponed a day due to weather.

Speaking to the group of volunteers before they head to their respective monitoring places Tuesday morning, Hayes said the rain would make for "an uncomfortable day" but reminded them to be patient while testing their samples.

"You cannot deviate from the standard operating procedure," he reminded the dozen volunteers gathered under a business's porch roof. "You have to take your time."

He said their numbers have to be "legally defensible."

"We have to document what happens so that if there's a massive fish kill and if they question why we can say, 'Guess what? We've done this,'" he said.

But the numbers the volunteers gather also have less dramatic impacts.

Jennifer Averette, the executive director of Murrells Inlet 2020, said the monitoring told them that they needed to do something about pet waste making its way into the water system.

"They determined that it's a big problem," she said, and as a result the organization put up several pet waste stations near the inlet.

And those kind of changes are what Weinreich hopes will come as a result of their monitoring.

"It's the least we can do to take care of the inlet," she said.

And, looking past the rain falling around her to the inlet, she said "regardless of all this nastiness it's still something I could do forever. I feel like I'm doing something important and good."