Monday, August 16, 2010

Closed oyster beds a wake-up call

Bluffton Today

This morning as you sip your coffee and read your favorite paper, there are meetings in progress that have to do with the health of our precious May River.

My friends Larry and Tina Toomer, owners and operators of the Bluffton Oyster Company, are meeting with environmental sanitation staff from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The 950-plus acres of headwaters of the May River are being closed to oyster harvesting for the 2010-11 season because of unacceptable fecal coliform levels. This area was classified as conditional last year, but increasing pollution has made that classification unsupportable going forward.

Later today, DHEC staffers will also meet with Kim Jones and other town of Bluffton officials, as well as Dan Ahern of the Beaufort County Stormwater Utility.

The explanation that I have been given for this reclassification has to do with “cumulative impacts” that make the headwaters fecal coliform readings too high even when there is not a rain event that might stir up the pollution from the bottom.

While this is not good news, it must be said that the sampling will continue and there is a possibility that the three-year rolling average that necessitated this reclassification is reversible if we can get a grip on the cumulative impacts that are diminishing our river. I want to say unequivocally that Larry and Tina’s oysters from the Bluffton Oyster Company are still the best in the country.

They are harvested from waters well removed from the reclassified areas and will remain available and of excellent quality for the foreseeable future. My office will continue to serve as a catalyst for interaction and communication between the town, county and state jurisdictions.

This water quality issue is not a problem without a solution.

On the contrary, all the jurisdictions are modifying their particular regulatory regimes in light of newer science that strongly suggests that naturally occurring organisms such a fecals are controlled fairly effectively by the salinity of an estuarine system.

Unfortunately, as we build more roads and houses and shopping centers with more impervious surfaces, the water that should filter into the earth is running off into the creeks and rivers, making them less salty and less able to naturally clean themselves.

My personal understanding of this matter is the reason that my last project, the Promenade in Old Town Bluffton, retains all its stormwater on the property, stored underground in large perforated pipes until it seeps into the ground. I believe that eventually, we will have to take our regulation, especially in the Lowcountry, in that direction. In the meantime, let this reclassification serve as a wake-up call for our community.

We must reduce or mitigate impervious surfaces wherever possible.

The rain that flows off your roof or driveway does not just disappear without impact. It is one of those “cumulative impacts” mentioned above. Kim Jones, natural resources planner for the town of Bluffton, has gotten a grant to support conservation projects in our area.

One of those projects that we can all consider is installing rain barrels and rain gardens to infiltrate water back into the earth.

Go by and see Paige Camp’s compound on Calhoun Street. She has several rain barrels integrated into her landscaping. It’s beautiful. Our potter, Jacob Preston, is renovating his home and studio on Church Street with at least 1,200 gallons of rainwater storage capacity and a plan to flush the toilets in his house and studio from that supply as well as support raised-bed gardens.

You will hear more from me on this crucial issue as we get into the fall.