Save The May River – Bluffton, SC

Lesson

The Science is easy to understand and is long proven:

“The clearing of land for sprawling suburban development is directly linked to the impaired waterways because without enough natural land cover left intact to serve its filtering function, stormwater carries sediment and pollutants across impervious surfaces and directly into the rivers.” (Schueller & Holland, 2000).

Recent decades of development have brought an influx of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots and roads. Now that impervious surfaces cover more than 10 percent of our watershed area, it is a widely held scientific fact that the water quality within has declined. Poor water quality leads to medical illness in humans and decimates oysters, fish and other marine life.

With a few exceptions, the settlement pattern south of the Broad River has been comprised of conventional suburban sprawl: single-use, single-family detached subdivisions, strip-commercial, and auto-dominated thoroughfares which brings with it a high percentage of impervious surface. The clearing of land for sprawling suburban development is directly linked to the impaired waterways because without enough natural land-cover left intact to serve its filtering function, stormwater carries sediment and pollutants across impervious surfaces and directly into the rivers. The impacts of impervious surface are exponential: a one-acre parking lot produces 16 times the volume of runoff that comes from a one-acre meadow (Schueller & Holland, 2000). Therefore, developing under a conventional suburban sprawl settlement pattern guarantees enormous stormwater volumes while amplifying its negative impacts on our waterways.

Moreover, the streams, creeks, marshes and rivers surrounded by filled and impervious watersheds are less diverse, less stable, and less productive than those in natural watersheds. (Schueller & Holland, 2000) Streams in watersheds with more than ten percent hard surfaces become physically unstable, causing erosion and sedimentation, (Booth, 1991; Booth & Reinelt, 1993) and habitat quality falls below the level necessary to sustain a broad diversity of aquatic life. (Booth, Booth &R; Shaver et al., 1995) In sum, a watershed’s diversity, stability and quality become increasingly compromised as percentages of impervious surface increase. As a general rule, a ten-percent [impervious surface] threshold establishes an empirical point beyond which ecosystem function, in general, declines because of individual and cumulative stresses. (Beach, 2002) Studies specifically focusing on coastal estuaries have confirmed that general degradation begins at the ten-percent impervious threshold. (Taylor, 1993) There is an indisputable positive relationship between the traditional development pattern (compact, mixed-use, traditional neighborhood development) and its minimized impervious surface that ultimately results in greater water quality.

Over the past (two) decade(s), various stormwater management techniques have been employed in an attempt to mitigate the impacts of stormwater runoff caused by impervious surface without altering the conventional suburban settlement pattern. These techniques include, but are not limited to: stormwater management ordinances, Best Management Practices, devices at the end of outfalls, and maintenance and repair of stormwater retention ponds. However, the current inventory of on-site safeguards does not allow us to ignore the ten-percent rule. The only aquatic systems that will retain the full range of species and ecological functions will be those where less than ten percent of the watershed is impervious. (Schueller & Holland, 2000)

Septic Systems – Reality vs Myth

About a decade ago, as part of an environmental restoration grant application, about 500 homes near the river were reported to have septic tanks. That number has not changed significantly in the last ten years, in part because most home construction since then have been connected to sewer systems rather than septic tanks.

Yet, we have an increasingly damaging problem with pollution entering the May River.

“The clearing of land for sprawling suburban development is directly linked to the impaired waterways because without enough natural land cover left intact to serve its filtering function, stormwater carries sediment and pollutants across impervious surfaces and directly into the rivers.” (Schueller & Holland, 2000).

While efforts to provide sanitary sewers as broadly as possible are encouraging, these efforts can also divert attention from the leading cause of polluted runoff – poor planning and inappropriate development patterns leading to sprawl.

Similarly, the limited focus of current testing is hindering our monitoring efforts. Testing that is infrequent or that is restricted to only fecal coliform provides little information about safety risks and long term pollution trends. Because of these testing limits, we actually don’t know how safe it is to swim in the headwaters of the May River. Per the Coastal Conservation League, “if the greater Bluffton area is developed according to the approvals as they currently exist, impervious surface will exceed 20% in the May River watershed and edible May River oysters will be a thing of the past.”

So, while the removal of septic tanks is a small part of the solution, it is not, in and of itself, the total solution. We need to focus on smarter land use. Without correcting our problems with suburban sprawl, we will not succeed.
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Coastal Conservation League’s Plan for the May River Watershed 2009

bluffton township watershed plan – FINAL 8.22.09.ppt (savethemayriver.com)

 

What if: SCDHEC was sending money to the Town of Bluffton and earmarked for sewer installation and once they were installed the zoning would automatically change adding density impervious surface cover – netting more pollution?

The ‘black box’: How SC lawmakers quietly funneled $1.7M to Beaufort Co. projects – The ‘black box’: How SC lawmakers quietly funneled $1.7M to Beaufort Co. projects (msn.com)

What if: Beaufort County Stormwater utility funds were being used for sewer installation and once they were installed the zoning would automatically change adding density impervious surface cover – netting more pollution?

Bluffton will pay $2.6 million for sewers in Old Town. Will it protect the May River? (msn.com)

 

From the Island Packet recent article:

“Last year, a study conducted by the University of South Carolina-Beaufort found that fecal coliform bacteria levels have been rising in the May River for the past two decades and, in some parts, are above what is considered safe for shellfish harvesting.”

“The study found that Bluffton’s building and population boom over the past 20 years has led to increased stormwater runoff, lowering the salinity in the May River and allowing fecal coliform to thrive. One DHEC monitoring station found that bacteria levels had increased 3,150% since 1999.”

“Local governments, he reiterated, don’t protect enough land near watersheds and that leads to decreased salinity in the headwaters, which can fuel bacteria growth.”
“Implementing stricter zoning laws, not clearing trees and buying land to be used for nature preserves instead of development could help stem the problem, he (Dr. Monty) said.”
“I don’t mind speaking the truth,” he said. “What are you going to do, be afraid of the reality? For some reason we’re in an area now where people don’t believe in data and science and it’s very scary. Data doesn’t lie.”