For five years, Beaufort County has relied on GEL Laboratories of Charleston to test and analyze water samples from local waterways.
But with that contract set to expire in November, the county is considering shifting much of the work to the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Under a proposed plan, the county would pay the university $90,000 a year to collect water from monitoring stations and to test those samples for bacteria, heavy metals, nitrogen, phosphorus and a number of other substances.
The university's water-quality lab already performs regular bacterial analyses for the town of Bluffton and the county, but it lacks equipment to test for every substance covered under the proposed county contract, said Professor Alan Warren, USCB program director of environmental health science.
If the contract is approved, the university would buy equipment to expand testing capabilities, he said. That would allow USCB to increase research opportunities for teachers and staff. The university also could hire a full-time analytical chemist to work with students and possibly teach new courses.
"That's part of the beauty of it. We anticipate the laboratory being used as a teaching tool, a research tool and as a public service tool," Warren said, noting that students assisting with the analyses would be trained and supervised.
Beaufort County monitors water at various sites on a weekly basis. Dan Ahern, who manages the county's stormwater utility department, said the data help identify problems and trends.
Funding for the water-testing contract would come from stormwater fees charged to property owners each year. USCB, Ahern said, can perform the testing for about $5,000 less than GEL Laboratories can.
Ahern said it would be several months after the contract is approved before the university could replace GEL, so the county could extend its contract with the firm until the university is ready.
USCB chancellor Jane Upshaw calls the partnership with Beaufort County a "natural fit," especially as the university launches a new concentration this fall in coastal ecology and conservation.
Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic also supports the proposal, noting that "a lot of dollars for water-quality testing is going out of the county."
The county's stormwater utility department also is considering partnering with the university and the Waddell Mariculture Center, run by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, to study how various events affect salinity in local waterways.
Beaufort County Council is expected to review both proposals today at its meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in the county administration building in Beaufort.