MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – The beautiful beaches of the Grand Strand attract millions of visitors each year, but in early March some began to question vacation plans. They wondered if too much harmful bacteria are in the water because of a post on myrtlebeachsc.com – a website operated by local writer David Hucks.
The post mentioned a swimming advisory at the beach, and it became so alarming on social media, News13 reported on it three times, including interviews with Hucks and tourism professionals.
“We’ve had a million visitors in the last few days,” Hucks said on March 14. “It wasn’t surprising at all. It wasn’t surprising because this is very important.”
Meanwhile, many lodging destinations in the Grand Strand and the city were fielding calls from worried vacationers with plans to visit.
“It’s generated a lot of concern for us,” explained Brian Miller with Brittain Resorts and Hotels. “[Potential visitors were asking] Is it safe to swim, should I keep my reservation, are we allowed to go in the water?”
The folks Ocean Lakes also got lots of calls. Many of them came from people already planning a visit. “They were really concerned about changing their summer vacation plans,” commented Barb Krumm in mid March. “I’m surprised that once source can have such an impact.”
The website post centered on swimming advisory signs. The signs are based on water testing done by DHEC – South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control.
News 13 arranged for independent water testing to see how much bacteria are in the water and if the results matched up with results from DHEC .
Malcolm Cook, the lab director for Florence’s environmental wastewater treatment plant, worked with News 13 to test water samples.
We collected three samples from the ocean and just for comparison, one sample from the Intracoastal Waterway, and one sample from a community pool.
The first ocean sample came from water right where Withers Swash meets the Ocean in Myrtle Beach. The swash drains storm water to the ocean. According to DHEC, this area had a bacteria level 33 times higher than the acceptable safe standard back on March 28, 2016.* An advisory sign says bacteria levels could be high in that area, especially just after a rainfall. We tested on May 4th, a day after it rained about an inch and a half.
We also took a sample several hundred feet down the beach from the swash – just outside the advisory area. Our third ocean sample came from just south of Myrtle Beach State Park.
Although our testing was not scientifically certified, Cook put the samples through a process similar to the normal testing he conducts.
“Normally we test for ecoli and fecal coliform,” he explained.
Cook tested for bacteria called “enterococcus” – the same bacteria DHEC tests for in its testing program. Simply put, enterococcus is a widely accepted indicator of water that could make you sick, and anything above a 104 cfu/100mL measurement means you should not swim in the water.
“[Our test] shows there were very few of the bacteria in that water when we looked and we experimented,” Cook said. “Actually [the sample from Withers Swash had] 11 compared to that 104 that you mentioned, and several of these samples that we did we couldn’t find anything.”
After putting the water samples through a particular lab process, he used a black light to see which samples had evidence of bacteria. Only the sample from the Intracoastal Water showed significant bacteria levels. It tested at 108, but because the waterway is a different type of water, the acceptable level there is slightly higher.
DHEC tested the ocean just the day before us and found similarly low levels of bacteria in the areas we tested.
“It didn’t seem to be an alarming amount of bacteria?” asked News13 reporter Brandon Herring.
“I’d have jumped in,” Cook responded.
However, the samples just indicate one moment in time. Coastal Carolina University and DHEC have long term data from Grand Strand beaches. Those numbers are what prompted installation of advisory signs at several beaches starting in 2007. The signs are most often at areas with drainage to the beach. They indicate that in the last five years, 10% percent of the samples taken in that particular spot had bacteria levels above the acceptable level. (More: DHEC’s guide to beach monitoring and long term swim advisories)
“They were merely a proactive effort to educate the beach-going public of the potential that there could be some elevated levels of bacteria especially following rainfall,” said DHEC Spokesman Jim Beasley. “The number of the long term signs that we have posted have been coming down. I think that that’s good news for our coastline.”
In the Grand Strand, DHEC tests 52 spots from Cherry Grove down to Pawleys Island weekly between May 1 and October 1. This year 16 of those spots have signs advising people not to swim for 200 feet in each direction of the sign. Eight signs are in Myrtle Beach. Three are in Surfside Beach. One is in Briarcliffe Acres, and four are at unincorporated beaches of Horry County.
If an area without a long term advisory sign tests above the 104 standard for two days in a row, DHEC will put out a temporary advisory sign. As of June 6, 2016, that has happened twice in North Myrtle Beach and once at an Horry County beach since this year’s testing began on May 1.
DHEC’s long term online figures show bacteria levels do often fluctuate, usually jumping in drainage areas after a rainfall.
“It’s like the stock market. It goes up and down. When do you pull your money? When it’s at its highest peak,” Cook commented. “When do you not go swimming? When it’s at its highest peak.”
A map showing DHEC’s testing sites and their most recent test results can be found on the department’s website at http://gis.dhec.sc.gov/beachaccess/
*The March 28 water sample came after a rainfall of .62” in the Grand Strand – the first rainfall of more than .3” in a month. No other test sites showed such elevated levels of bacteria, but some sites did also spike on the 28th.