Beaufort County has spent nearly $30 million buying land around the Okatie River in hopes of improving water quality and reopening shellfish beds.
But with no measurable change in water quality, one member of Beaufort County Council said he hoped all the money spent on land acquisitions and easements would have done more than preserve the status quo.
"I am trying not to say it's too late," said Rick Caporale, who represents part of Hilton Head Island. "I am looking for reasons to think we can still make a difference ... but I am worried about Okatie, and I don't know that all that spending is the solution."
Caporale also worries that once the economy picks up and development resumes, the county won't be able to buy enough land to sufficiently protect the river.
Beaufort County has purchased or preserved nearly 600 acres in the Okatie watershed during the past decade, spending about $25 million in voter-approved Rural and Critical Lands money.
Last week, the county announced plans to buy the 229-acre Pinckney Point parcel, which has frontage on the Okatie and Colleton rivers. Developers once planned 76 homes and dozens of boat slips on the land. The sale price is $6.95 million.
Caporale cast the lone vote against the purchase April 8. He's voted against other recent acquisitions, as well, citing his opposition to the new debt required to pay for them.
"Maybe the debt isn't a big deal. I think it is, but maybe it's not," he said. "But I think it is a big deal that you can't establish that there is some positive result from money that's been spent already."
Data from the S.C. Department of Environmental Control and the county suggest bacteria levels in the river have been stable during the past three to five years.
Shellfish beds on the river, which the state considers impaired, have been closed since 1996.
Reed Armstrong, with the Coastal Conservation League's Beaufort office, said land acquisitions near a troubled waterway, on their own, won't improve water quality. Rather, those purchases help prevent further degradation and give current and future restoration efforts a chance to have an impact.
"It's a two-pronged approach," he said. "One is preventing further degradation. The other is restoring water quality. To do that, what you have to do is change the drainage that's coming into the waterway."
Armstrong added that water quality is not the sole goal of the Rural and Critical Lands program. Benefits also include preserving animal habitat and open space.
Councilman Brian Flewelling agreed, saying infrastructure upgrades are a key step in cleaning up the river.
"With the Okatie, there was such a possibility for over-development that by taking those properties off the market and protecting them, we have stemmed the tide of change," he said. "We can certainly improve infrastructure along the river as time goes on, but we have managed to stop the trend."
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.