State's Okatie River plan falls short on key factor

Missed opportunity is the best way to describe a state agency's plan to restore the health of the Okatie River.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control's plan focuses on the concentration of fecal coliform, an indicator of pollutants, in the river. But it doesn't address how much stormwater runoff is reaching the river, a critical component.

That misses the chance to control the volume of fresh water reaching the saltwater estuarine system, and it misses the chance to help Beaufort County deal with conflicting ordinances in Jasper County and Hardeeville on how to protect local waterways.

Beaufort County stormwater utility manager Dan Ahern points out that the state's plan means the concentration of pollutants could be diluted by the volume of stormwater and still meet the standards.

That's a critical difference. Measuring concentration levels doesn't address the amount of pollutants reaching the river, nor does it address the impacts of too much fresh water on the saltwater system. The county's new stormwater standards, by controlling the amount of water reaching local waterways, attempts to do both.

The Okatie has been designated impaired since 1995 because of high fecal coliform counts, which studies have attributed largely to increased development in the area.

Unfortunately, the state agency's board refused to take up objections to its plans to reduce pollutants in the impaired river. Beaufort County can take its case to the S.C. Administrative Law Court, and we urge county officials to do so.

The Coastal Conservation League also weighed in with its concerns about the state's plans to reduce fecal coliform in the river and reopen closed oyster beds to harvesting. The league points out that 23 percent of the land in the river's watershed already is covered by hard surfaces, which increases the amount and rate of potentially polluting stormwater runoff.

Research has found that if 10 percent of a watershed's land is covered by hard surfaces, oystering in the headwaters of tidal creeks is likely to be prohibited. If 30 percent or more of the land is covered, it brings the kinds of changes that can't be turned back completely.

Dr. Fred Holland, former director of the Hollings Marine Laboratory and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Research Institute, says his 16 years of research in headwater tidal creeks has found that the greater the volume of stormwater runoff, the more pollutants reach our estuaries. In addition, abrupt changes in salinity -- "flashiness" -- brought about by freshwater runoff also affects the juvenile fish and shrimp that live in the tidal creek nursery.

The best way to minimize the threat of development and the associated increases in stormwater runoff is to minimize the volume of stormwater discharged into creeks and rivers, Holland says.

The state plan falls short on this critical point.

It also would be good to have a more uniform approach to addressing this problem. The Okatie's watershed crosses municipal and county boundaries. Projects in Jasper County and Hardeeville don't have to meet the same standards as those built in Beaufort County.

This can lead to the political machinations we saw earlier this year. State Rep. Bill Herbkersman of Bluffton tried using a bill to give tax incentives to a massive shopping mall in Hardeeville to get the project to meet Beaufort County's stormwater standards. The improved standards became the reason to give the mall's developer special tax incentives.

State oversight that includes those higher standards in this watershed and others would help resolve that dilemma.