With May River cleanup efforts that include a marketing campaign urging residents to pick up after their pets, some wonder if that message should extend to local sandbars.
The chairman of the May River Waterbody Management Plan Implementation Committee, Wes Jones, raised the question at a meeting last week after noticing a sandbar near Bluffton crowded with unleashed dogs.
Jones said he was concerned pet owners weren't obeying leash laws or cleaning up after their pets.
In an interview this week, Jones said he is a dog lover and doesn't mind people bringing pets to the popular hangouts. But he said dogs could be one reason for the high fecal-coliform counts that have shut down shellfishing in sections of the river.
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Town staff estimates that if one-fourth of local owners don't pick up after their pets, 290,000 pounds of waste could make its way into the river each year. And at the sandbars, most dog owners' preferred method of handling pet waste seems to be letting the tide wash it away, some say.
Among the town's attempts to curb pollution reaching the river are a free septic-repair program and a May River Watershed Action Plan. But because fecal waste doesn't come from one place, all potential contributors -- including dogs -- must be addressed, according to town natural resources manager Kim Jones.
However, the sandbar that Jones pointed out and a popular sandbar near Myrtle Island are outside town jurisdiction, according to Sgt. Joseph Babkiewicz, Bluffton Police Department spokesman. So they're not covered by the town's ordinance requiring pet owners to clean up after dogs in public places.
Beaufort County has leash laws that apply to beaches and other public places, but no similar cleanup ordinance. Sheriff's Office marine units usually warn violators at the sandbars of the leash law and follow up with tickets if they fail to comply, according to Sgt. Robin McIntosh.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Sgt. Michael Paul Thomas said the agency patrols local waterways more than other law enforcement agencies. But they don't enforce local laws, he said.
Bluffton resident Laura Floyd said everyone at the crowded sandbars seems to bring a dog, and she often sees pet waste. Floyd said that to set an example for others, she takes a bag when she brings her dog.
Floyd said she also is concerned about human waste, given that there are no facilities at the sandbars, which disappear at high tide.
"I don't swim with the tide going in my direction, that's for sure," Floyd said.
Local angler and outdoors columnist Collins Doughtie said the atmosphere at the popular sandbar is a "free-for-all" with visitors bringing grills and enjoying the sun and surf.
Doughtie said he doesn't think dogs on the sandbars are major contributors to fecal coliform levels in the river. He is more concerned about trash left on beaches and boat landings, such as at All Joy Landing, he said.
"Part of why people come to Bluffton is to be free and easy, but one day, it's going to stop because they're just ruining it," Doughtie said of people's disregard of the environment. "Eventually, there are going to be more regulations and more rules."
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/blufftonblogip.