State of the Beach/State Reports/SC/Water Quality

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Beach Access88
Water Quality54
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Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. For 2012, the total fund available for BEACH Act grants was $9.8 million. Funding beyond 2012 is in jeopardy, since EPA's budget request for this program in FY2013 was ZERO (money for testing in 2013 was ultimately allocated as part of a Continuing Resolution to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there is also no money for beach testing in the FY2014 budget. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. South Carolina was eligible for a $294,000 grant in 2012. Federal grants fully fund South Carolina’s beach monitoring and notification program.

Beach Monitoring in South Carolina (PDF) was the subject of a February 2010 presentation by Shannon Berry of DHEC.

Much of the following discussion is taken from the South Carolina section of NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2013.

NRDC ranked South Carolina 26th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 11% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012.

There are 63 beaches in South Carolina lining 180 miles of Atlantic coastline (102 miles on the mainland coast and 78 miles on islands without bridges from the mainland barrier islands or on sandbars). The state's beachwater quality monitoring program is administered by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Using Deep Ocean Outfalls to Protect Swimmers in the Grand Strand

The Grand Strand is a stretch of beaches between Little River and and Georgetown. Some of the Grand Strand communities have constructed stormwater outfalls that discharge further out in the ocean instead of at the coast in order to limit beach erosion and reduce localized pollution concentrations for swimmers. These projects, which cost millions of dollars per ocean outfall, have created significant reductions in the amount of fecal indicator bacteria found in beachwater where they have been implemented (7th Avenue South in North Myrtle Beach and Deep Head Swash in Myrtle Beach). In 2011, Myrtle Beach completed construction of the latest ocean outfall, located at 4th Avenue North. This project combined nine existing stormwater drainage pipes that used to discharge at the beach into one pipe that runs underneath the seabed and discharges into the Atlantic Ocean more than 1,000 feet from shore.

NRDC encourages coastal communities to explore solutions that prevent stormwater runoff before it occurs. The high cost of deep-ocean outfalls as a solution to beach erosion and beachwater quality problems illustrates the importance of reducing stormwater runoff by implementing green infrastructure wherever possible. In addition to improving beachwater quality, green infrastructure does not transfer pollution to the ocean and has significant other benefits.


Sampling Practices

The monitoring season in South Carolina runs from May 15 to October 15. The DHEC determines monitoring locations, sampling practices, standards, and notification protocols, which are uniform throughout the state. Samples are taken in water that is 20 to 40 inches deep, 12 inches below the surface. A sanitary survey (a systematic investigation used to identify potential sources of human sewage pollution) is conducted every time a beach is sampled. In South Carolina, beaches are prioritized for inclusion in the monitoring program on the basis of level of use, water quality history, and other applicable factors. Most of the highest-priority (Tier 1) beaches have stormwater outfalls.

Sampling is deliberately conducted at swashes and outfalls, where water quality is expected to be poorest. Portions of beaches whose water quality has fallen below the standard are sampled daily. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.

In addition to the DHEC monitoring, the city of Myrtle Beach uses Coastal Carolina University to conduct year-round sampling at monitoring sites in the city. Thus, during the state's monitoring season, these sites are monitored twice a week. Also, during the monitoring season, the county park on Isle of Palms samples twice per month in addition to the DHEC's twice-a-month monitoring schedule, so water at this beach, which has 9 sampling stations, is monitored four times per month.


Standards and Procedures

The beachwater quality monitoring program has the authority to issue advisories but not closings; in South Carolina, only elected officials can close a beach. South Carolina applies a single-sample maximum standard for enterococcus of 104 cfu/100 ml. No geometric mean standard is applied when determining whether to issue a beach advisory.

The DHEC issues an advisory immediately when the enterococcus bacteria level is 500 cfu/100 ml or higher. If the bacteria level is above 104 cfu/100 ml but below 500 cfu/100 ml, an additional sample is collected. If the second sample is also above 104 cfu/100 ml, the department issues an advisory. The advisory remains in place until samples show bacteria levels below the state standard. Advisories include the area of the beach that is within 200 feet on either side of the monitoring station where the exceedance occurred. Advisories are posted via signs at the beach, online, and through a Twitter feed.

Most pipe outfalls and swashes in Horry County are under permanent rainfall advisory, with permanent signs advising the public against swimming in the area of the stormwater outfall. This type of standing advisory is not reported to EPA and is not included in NRDC's analysis.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) Bureau of Water is the key source of information on water quality issues in South Carolina.

On the Beach Monitoring Program website, under Program Information you will find links to the following documents explaining the ocean water quality monitoring program:

  • Ocean Water Quality Sampling Sites
  • Ocean Water Quality Monitoring and Notification Program Booklet
  • Quality Assurance Project Plan – 2011
  • Report to EPA – May 2011
  • Sanitary Survey Data - 2011
  • EPA Report Surfside - 2009 (449 pages)

The Ocean Water Quality Monitoring Program is described in this report, which was revised in January 2011 to include the results of the 2010 monitoring season. In a summary of potential health risks, SCDHEC reports:

The most common problem from swimming in potentially contaminated ocean water is acute gastroenteritis and diarrhea from accidental ingestion. While respiratory and other infections are possible, the likelihood of acquiring such potentially serious pathogens as Salmonella typhi and poliovirus is extremely low to non-existent in U.S. coastal waters. Most illnesses associated with swimming are neither protracted nor life threatening, but they can result in discomfort, inconvenience, and potentially significant direct and indirect medical costs. Although not everyone will become ill after swimming in contaminated water, the risk of illness has been correlated with increasing bacteria densities.

SCDHEC uses the Enterolert Quantitray™ analysis method to monitor ocean water quality. This method was chosen as a rapid and simple means of identifying the enterococcus bacteria, whose presence in coastal waters is a key indicator of the presence of pathogens, as has been recognized by the EPA.

In summarizing South Carolina's present practices, the Ocean Water Quality Monitoring Program report identifies collection sites (also see this Excel spreadsheet) - over 120 in three districts - and outlines ocean water quality sampling intervals, typically, monthly to biweekly, and after significant rainfall.

In January 2007 town officials in Hilton Head Island announced that they were planning to begin supplementing testing by state environmental authorities in spring 2007 with their own water monitoring. Residents were reportedly worried the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) might declare the coastal waters hazardous or temporarily close a beach for what amounts to an environmental anomaly, like a passing storm, instead of a major pollution concern. Town leaders say the extra testing would provide Hilton Head Island with a backup sample to compare to the state's tests, or help determine the extent of a problem more quickly.

Between 2003 and 2006, DHEC issued five advisories on Hilton Head Island, three of which occurred summer or fall in 2006. DHEC attributed the high bacteria levels to high tides and storms that churned up sediment. Town officials have stated that Hilton Head Island eventually wants to assume 100 percent of the water testing, but will begin with every-other-week tests between April and October 2007. But even if the town takes over all testing, DHEC would still continue to do its own water sampling, according to DHEC.

The Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN), which had its origin in South Carolina in 2001, is a National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science program operating in ten coastal states with the ultimate goal of linking laboratory scientists to the general public. PMN's seven goals are:

  • To create a comprehensive list of harmful algal species inhabiting coastal marine waters
  • To monitor and maintain an extended survey area along coastal waters throughout the year
  • To isolate areas prone to harmful algal blooms (HABs) for further study by Marine Biotoxins researchers
  • To identify general trends, such as time and area, where HABs are more likely to occur
  • To promote increased awareness and education to the public, particularly students, on HABs
  • To increase the public's awareness of research conducted by federal and state workers on HABs
  • To create a working relationship with open communication between volunteers and researchers through PMN

Water Quality Contacts

DHEC Central Office
Program Coordinator: (vacant)
Please contact Richard Welch with questions.

DHEC Region 6 – Myrtle Beach Office
Horry and Georgetown Counties (843) 238-4378
Sean Torrens
David Cudd

DHEC Region 7– Charleston Office
Charleston County (843) 953-0150
Erin Neely
Harvey Wilkins

DHEC Region 8 – Beaufort Office
Beaufort and Colleton Counties (843)-846-1030
Dave Payne
Penny Cornett

Beach Closures

When an advisory is issued, DHEC or the municipality posts signs (generally within four hours), provides Web announcements, notifies the newspapers, and provides telephone hotlines (Central Office: 803-898-3541, Waccamaw: 843-448-1902, Trident: 843-740-1590, and Low Country: 843-846-1030).

Swimming and fish consumption advisories are listed here.

NRDC reported:

Number of Closings and Advisories: Total closing/advisory days for 9 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less increased 10% to 11 days in 2012 from 10 days in 2011. For prior years, there were 4 days in 2010, 48 days in 2009, and 36 days in 2008. In addition, there were no extended or permanent events in 2012. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 9 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 100% (11) of closing/advisory days in 2012 were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels.

Beach Closure Data

Year Advisory Days
2012 11
2011 10
2010 4
2009 48
2008 36
2007 108
2006 684
2005 592
2004 395
2003 593
2002 226
2001 129

Source: NRDC, 2013; SCDHEC, 2010

NRDC reported:

In 2012, South Carolina reported 63 coastal beaches. Of these, 1 (2%) was monitored more than once a week, 6 (10%) were assigned a monitoring frequency of once a week, 16 (25%) every other week, and 40 (63%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. In 2012, 11% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the daily maximum standard in 2012 were Myrtle Beach State Park and Campgrounds (20%), Surfside Beach (19%), Myrtle Beach (17%), and North Myrtle Beach (11%), all in Horry County. Horry County had the highest exceedance rate of the daily maximum standard in 2012 (15%), followed by Beaufort (6%), Colleton (2%), and Georgetown (1%). No samples taken at beaches in Charleston County exceeded the standard. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The SCDHEC Ocean Water Quality Monitoring Program report recommends the permanent posting of advisories on the beach and, at a minimum, immediately following periods of significant rainfall. It also recommends that advisory information be broadcast over cable channels; be posted at municipal government locations; be provided to hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, etc., in brochures, be made available via a toll free number; and be posted on the Web.

In 2009 U.S. EPA conducted an epidemiology study at Surfside Beach in South Carolina. EPA's Report on 2009 National Epidemiologic and Environmental Assessment of Recreational Water Epidemiology Studies (PDF) discusses the results of the study. In both cases, generally good water quality prevented the researchers from establishing a dose-response relationship between fecal indicator bacteria and gastrointestinal or other illnesses.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult.

The EPA has published information on water quality in South Carolina, including a fact sheet which notes that 68% of estuaries have good water quality that fully supports aquatic life uses. Fifty-three percent of rivers, more than 99% of lakes, and 89% of estuaries fully support swimming. Low dissolved oxygen is the most frequent cause of impairment in estuaries. Toxic contaminants do not appear to be a widespread problem in South Carolina surface waters.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, USGS Water Resources of South Carolina. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, and maps, real-time water conditions and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

South Carolina Sea Grant is another source of information on water quality in South Carolina.

Cal Sawyer
Coastal Environmental Quality Specialist
S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program
259 Meeting Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Phone: (843) 722-5940

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Information on the location or number of storm drains and sewage outfalls in South Carolina was not readily available.

The SCDHEC reports that South Carolina has no sewers that combine storm water with wastewater. South Carolina does have a number of storm drains that discharge to the beach[1], but over the last ten years state and local water controls have minimized inputs. New storm water outfalls to beaches are now prohibited.

Since 1996, North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach have committed tens of millions of dollars to improve water quality and bury stormwater outfalls 1,000 feet into the ocean. Several pipes have been buried in the Windy Hill section of North Myrtle Beach, and Myrtle Beach has started three multi-million dollar deep water ocean outfall projects, with one completed.

The deep-water ocean outfall project at 53rd Avenue North ran into problems, with the contractor suing Myrtle Beach in April 2005 after the city terminated the contract in March 2005 due to insufficient progress. Delays also occurred with an outfall project at 21st Avenue South. Both projects resumed in September 2005, with projected completion dates of about May-June 2006. Update - following is a summary of stormwater outfall projects as of May 2006:

  • 25th Avenue South - completed 2005
  • 14th Avenue North - completed 2006
  • 53rd Avenue North - completed 2006
  • 4th Avenue North - preliminary engineering in progress
  • 24th Avenue North - preliminary engineering in progress

An article in on July 13, 2006 said that according to North Myrtle Beach Director of Public Works Kevin Blayton, a water quality alert has not occurred since October 2005. Blayton attributes this primarily to construction of the stormwater ocean outfalls mentioned above. Since 2000, the city has spent $13 million for 4 outfalls, and they plan to spend $30 to $40 million for six more over the next 20 years. The city of North Myrtle Beach has also re-routed drainage away from the ocean as part of road improvement projects and has been incorporating "smart growth" principles by encouraging clustering of development, larger open spaces and buffers to minimize runoff.

An article in February 2012 provided a project update.

Several municipalities in the Grand Strand area have street sweeping programs to minimize inputs into storm water.

South Carolina's Strategy for the Protection of Waters from Non-point Source Pollution (1999) is available in Adobe Acrobat format.

NOAA and U.S. EPA announced final approval of South Carolina's Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program in February 2008.

Several publications regarding nonpoint source pollution are available online.

Also see the MS4 Permit Improvement Guide.

Septic Systems

Publications regarding onsite septic systems can be found online.

Erosion from tropical storms at Edisto Beach in late 2004 exposed septic fields and pipes, raising concerns about beach pollution and closings. Some residents said they would like DHEC to be more restrictive about new septic permits along the coast. An article in the Charleston Post & Courier quoted one homeowner:

"I think the only solution in the long run, considering the fact that it's an ongoing problem and that Mother Nature is unpredictable, is to put a moratorium on septic tank replacement on front beach until some kind of sewer line is run to a septic system somewhere. It just seems like it's going to be a never-ending problem and a constant source of pollution in the future."

Recently, swimmers and boaters on the Saluda River were not alerted of a sewage spill for six days after the fact, causing some people who were enjoying the river to get sick. South Carolina has some of the weakest protections for public health in the region – there’s no state requirement that sewage treatment plant operators notify the public when there’s a spill.

South Carolina relies on federal law to protect wetlands. In practice, isolated wetlands aren't protected because the DHEC doesn't have its own set of regulations or guidelines concerning development in wetland areas. In 2006 and again in 2007, state Sen. Larry Grooms and Sen. Chip Campsen introduced a bill creating a state permitting system.

In February 2010 the Kershaw County Council voted unanimously to pass a new package of zoning and land development regulations. An ordinance is included in the package that will protect all rivers and streams by requiring a 100-foot strip of trees and plants along the riverbank to limit the amount of polluted runoff that flows into the county’s waters.

Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Program Coordinator
Marian Page

Shannon Hicks, PE
Manager, Stormwater and State Certification

Tara Maddock
Stormwater Project Manager

Perception of Causes

Coastal development and the associated amount of impervious surfaces in Horry County tends to result in beach water quality problems, especially after periods of heavy rainfall. This was reiterated in a column "Wetlands protect beaches" which appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier in August 2007:

The benefits of wetlands preservation go far beyond helping wildlife that need the habitat to survive. Saving wetlands also helps keep the water at our beaches clean. That natural formula was reconfirmed again recently when a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that no advisories warning people against swimming were issued for Charleston County's beaches last year (2006).

But as reported, 684 such advisories were issued for Horry County's beaches in 2006, mostly Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach and Huntington Beach State Park — a 15 percent increase from the previous year and the highest state total in the Southeast.

Why such a vast difference? The report cited the combination of heavy rainfall and lots of pavement over which the stormwater ran in Horry County, inevitably raising the bacteria level in ocean water at those beaches. Heavy development and growth along the Grand Strand make its beaches more vulnerable to runoff pollution. Conversely, the more wetlands near the ocean, the more filtering.

Rivers, Lakes and Estuaries

South Carolina DHEC has a Surface Water Monitoring Program Web page that has multiple links to data and reports. South Carolina's Integrated Report for 2010 (March 31, 2010) provides the most recent data collected by the state regarding the condition of rivers, lakes and estuaries.

The Department of Natural Resources Marine Resources Research Institute (MRRI) has substantial information on their harmful algal bloom monitoring program and related special studies. MRRI staff also monitor South Carolina estuaries for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other pollutants.

In addition to these special study areas, the South Carolina Estuarine and Coastal Assessment Program (SCECAP) monitors the condition of the state's estuarine habitats and provides periodic reports to both coastal managers and the public. The program collects multiple measures of water quality, sediment quality, and biological condition at a large number of sites throughout the state's coastal zone each year and integrates those measures into an overall assessment of estuarine habitat condition at each site and the entire state. The program also expands historical monitoring activities that have primarily focused on open water habitats (e.g. bays, sounds, tidal rivers) to include an assessment of conditions in tidal creeks, which serve as important nursery habitat for most of the state's economically valuable species.

Public Education

DHEC's Educational Outreach and Education programs are described here.

Turning the Tide: A Citizens's Guide to Reducing Nonpoint Source Pollution is a 24-page brochure providing information on reducing nonpoint source pollution.

There's also A Citizen's Guide to Clean Water.

Additional information on nonpoint source pollution and a "things you can do" list is available at:

DHEC-OCRM applied for and received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for a series of marine debris reduction and education efforts. They have several projects and contracts with partner organizations as part of their growing coast-wide marine debris reduction plan.

COSEE SE, various Sea Grant organizations and OCRM have worked to produce several resources for educators.

Over Memorial Day and the July 4th holiday weekends in 2007, DHEC-OCRM aired an entertaining coast-wide public service announcement that used a grouchy fish's perspective to encourage beachgoers and boaters to be responsible for their trash. You can join the over 92,000 radio listeners who heard the message by visiting DHEC's Marine Debris Initiative website. See the "Marine Debris Public Service Announcement" link.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant also provided an opportunity to forge partnerships with the South Carolina Aquarium and the SC Department of Natural Resources. The South Carolina Aquarium is building on the high visibility of its acclaimed turtle hospital by producing a large poster exhibit that illustrates the effects of marine debris on marine turtle species and distributing turtle excluder devices for recreational crab traps. The Aquarium is also expanding its Barrier Island Internship program to include additional information for vacationers about marine debris and what they can do to prevent it.

The SC DNR has been awarded funding to expand its monofilament fishing line collection and recycling program. Under this grant, over 50 new collection bins will be installed at boat landings and parks throughout the coast. DNR estimates that with these additional bins, they will be able to collect and recycle over 800 additional pounds of fishing line each year.

Additionally, DHEC-OCRM is working with South Carolina Sea Grant and the Post and Courier Newspaper (Charleston) on a newspaper insert focusing on the dangers of marine debris and what people can do to prevent it. The insert will be distributed to the general readership (approx. 250,000). The insert also meets state standards as a middle school curriculum supplement and will be distributed to 2,000 teachers who instruct over 40,000 students in the coastal area.

DHEC-OCRM has sponsored several workshops over the past year that focus on low impact development and alternative Best Management Practices (BMPs).

The South Carolina Clean Marina Program provides a unique opportunity for marina owners and operators to improve their customer services, protect water quality and be recognized for their efforts. By meeting prescribed environmental performance criteria, marinas can qualify to fly the Clean Marina flag to attract recreational and transient boaters to their facility.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, will be releasing, in August 2009, a first-of-its kind interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.

USGS' Great Lakes Beach Science website has a nationwide database that contains greater than 1200 citations for publications directly and indirectly pertaining to recreational water quality intended for access by the general public and scientific community. It is a fully searchable, downloadable bibliography that has been categorized into major study topics.


  1. Natural Resources Defense Council 2002 Testing the Waters Report.

State of the Beach Report: South Carolina
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