Figures from a study of water quality, sediment quality and biological integrity show that, overall, the majority of South Carolina’s coastal and estuarine areas are in good condition.However, the multi-agency study reveals the impacts of coastal development on marine resources. For example, Charleston Harbor and Winyah Bay, the state’s most heavily urbanized estuaries, contain a higher percentage of sites in poor or fair condition as compared to less developed coastal areas.
The South Carolina Estuarine and Coastal Assessment Program (SCECAP) is an ongoing, intensive research study established in 1999 by principal collaborators, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to assess the condition of South Carolina’s estuaries and coastal areas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratories in Charleston are also collaborating in the program.
Contact program coordinator Bob Van Dolah at VandolahR@dnr.sc.gov for more information on SCECAP.
Intense pressures on natural resources have escalated with increasing development along the coastal areas of South Carolina. These coastal and estuarine areas serve a variety of natural functions including acting as nursery grounds for an array of marine species. These areas attract considerable numbers of recreational and commercial enthusiasts annually. The popular saltwater fishery contributes over $650 million to the state’s economy, and the tourism industry in the coastal region has an impact worth around $14 billion. These factors, coupled with rapid population growth and increasing development in coastal counties, contributed to the need for a multi-agency research design. According to DNR’s Bob Van Dolah, who is the SCECAP program coordinator and one of the principal investigators, “We realized several years ago that we needed an unbiased assessment of coastal zone condition in South Carolina that was comprehensive, long-term, and involved the expertise of both our agency and the Department of Health and Environmental Control.”
SCECAP was designed to provide a comprehensive assessment of habitat condition in the state’s estuaries and coastal areas by evaluating a random set of station locations each year. The yearly surveys include tidal creeks as well as larger open water bodies such as rivers, bays and sounds. Using criteria established for SCECAP, environmental indicators allow biologists to characterize the habitat quality of monitored sites and rate them as being in poor, fair or good condition. The SCECAP report is produced bi-annually from the previous two-years’ research and includes many indicators of water quality, sediment quality, biological integrity and overall habitat condition. Data from the 2003-2004 survey led to the findings in the current report.
Program staff are now processing the 2005-2006 samples for analysis and interpretation. Funding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has supported a significant portion of the SCECAP program, was terminated following the 2006 sampling. Program personnel in both agencies are determining how best to continue SCECAP in light of this budget cut.
Water quality is a primary indicator of coastal and estuarine habitat condition for many reasons. Water quality measures, like oxygen levels, can influence the diversity and distribution of marine life and can also reduce survival if their levels differ too much from normal conditions. Project staff also measure pH, nutrients, and fecal coliform bacteria levels in the water, as these serve to indicate whether an area may be stressful for organisms or unsuitable for some human uses. “SCECAP provides our agency with useful supplemental data to our ongoing Ambient Surface Water Quality Monitoring Network, including some biological measures that allow us to evaluate whether impaired water quality measures are resulting in evidence of biological stress or not,” said David Chestnut, principal investigator and project leader for S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Since the project’s inception in 1999, ongoing assessments have indicated that estuarine and coastal water quality is in good condition, overall. The 2003 - 2004 survey results show that while most of the tidal creek and open water areas tested are of good quality, 25% of the tidal creek areas and 13% of the open water areas are in fair to poor condition. Fair to poor water quality appears to stem primarily from unusually high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and nutrients that runoff from land and into the state’s estuaries.
Another important indicator for the SCECAP analysis includes testing the sediment quality present at the surveyed sites. Although a wide range of sediment characteristics are measured, contaminant concentrations and the toxicity of sediments to various organisms are most critical to assessing sediment quality. The 2003 - 2004 sediment quality tests indicate that most estuarine habitats are in good condition, but that around 25% of the open water habitat and 28% of tidal creek habitat is in fair condition. While none of the state’s estuarine habitat was characterized by poor conditions, DNR’s Derk Bergquist, another prinicipal investigator on the program noted that, “We are seeing a gradual increase in overall sediment contaminant levels in South Carolina’s coastal zone that is of concern.”