News13 investigates what’s being done to ensure safe ocean water

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – As concerns about ocean water quality continued to circulate on social media this summer, News 13 took a closer look – spending weeks investigating how other beaches along the east coast deal with the same issue.

Nearly 300 miles north of Myrtle Beach, in Virginia Beach, Va., the golden sand and boardwalk hide a major engineering feat.

“It’s been remarkably successful as an overall project,” said Phill Roehrs, Water Resources Engineer for Virginia Beach.

Roehrs said under the city’s boardwalk is a ten-foot wide pipe that collects water that runs off from streets, parking lots, rooftops and any impervious surface. Pumps push that storm water runoff through nine pipes underground and 2,000 feet off shore to the end of the pipes on the ocean floor.

The drainage system is called “ocean outfalls,” and it is designed to protect the oceanfront from storms and flooding. Roehrs said it also helps protect public health.

“Being able to discharge the water off shore away from human contact, it’s clearly – we think – a human health bonus,” he said.

The first outfalls in Virginia Beach were finished in 2001, with more added around 2008. In the Grand Strand there are also nine outfalls, but beach development from Cherry Grove to Murrells Inlet stretches about two times farther than in Virginia Beach. Out of six local jurisdictions, North Myrtle Beach has five of the outfalls… Myrtle Beach has the other four.

Just this summer Myrtle Beach finished the outfall that runs out into the ocean at 4th Avenue North. It cost more than $10 million. Cost is a major obstacle to building more. North Myrtle Beach estimates it needs $60 million more to finish about six more outfalls. The money would come mostly from storm water fees paid in taxes.

“Unfortunately, the federal government’s been kind of on a hiatus in new starts for major civil works projects for quite a while now,” Roehrs commented.

While outfalls do help get potentially harmful storm water out of beach swimming areas, they are far from the only water management effort in the Grand Strand. From storm drain education efforts, to rules that require new development to keep water runoff on-site, there are lots of tactics to slow and filter water before it gets to the ocean. That also includes numerous filtration mechanisms in drainage areas. Horry County even has one ultraviolet disinfection system at Pirateland Campground. However, it is a method that Roehrs believes is not practical on a widespread scale because of the space it would take to run all storm water over ultraviolet bulbs.

“It’s absurd really,” he said.

As for chemical disinfection, the EPA prohibits that.

David Fuss who works with Horry County storm water management and Janet Wood with Myrtle Beach Public Works pointed out that a recent study showed waste from birds, dogs and other mammals were the biggest sources of bacteria in water runoff in the Grand Strand. Management efforts include reducing those natural bacteria.

Even with the current efforts, or even more that could be done, experts acknowledge there’s only so much that can be done to keep ocean water clean. For example, swashes that collect water and lead out to the shore can often result in some of the highest bacteria levels where they meet the ocean, but ecologists and engineers alike say eliminating them is not reasonable.

“Marshes and swamps probably put out a nice healthy brine of things that may be in a concentration that the EPA wouldn’t think you should swim in, but it’s perfectly natural,” Roehrs explained.

The director for the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health had a similar thought.

“Natural bodies of water are not sterile,” explained Dr. Heidi Kulberg. “Each of us takes a risk – overall minimal risk – but each one of us takes a risk when we go into any body of water.”

Nonetheless, keeping people out of those spots with higher bacteria levels is a potential area of improvement for the Grand Strand. Local governments follow the state’s lead and use nearly the minimum standard from the EPA when it comes to notifications about water testing results. As News13 explained in previous reports, a swimming advisory is only issued in South Carolina if tests on two consecutive days show elevated bacteria. That delays public notice by a day, and advisories are just suggestions for people to stay out of the water around the testing site.

Virginia Beach has set its own higher standard by electing to close swimming areas after just one test shows elevated bacteria. Kulberg said it is a practice enacted in 2001, even before the city had its outfalls fully operational.

“Many people come here to enjoy our beaches, and we wanted to ensure that we gave the highest level of protection that our city could offer,” she explained.

Lifeguards enforce the “no swimming” notices with backup from police if necessary.

“We are actively taking a part in ensuring the public’s safety,” Kulberg said.

That is in contrast to the more passive approach of advisories that notify the public through press releases and sometimes overlooked signage. However, closures certainly are not the norm in the southeast. On the east coast, only Virginia Beach and several northeastern states respond with closures as part of their normal beach monitoring process.

“I believe in what we’re doing. I think it’s wonderful,” Kulberg commented. “I don’t have the data to say that it’s any better than the advisories that are out there.

Kulberg believes regardless of how water testing is handled, it is ultimately up to swimmers to realize their risk when swimming.

“[Think about] what risk you’re comfortable accepting because there’s always a risk with anything we do, whether it’s getting in our car and driving, walking across the street, or swimming in the ocean or a pool,” she explained.

Elected officials would have to vote on new laws to change how soon swimming advisories are issued or whether beaches close as a result of elevated bacteria levels. That would likely only happen if local or state lawmakers feel the water poses a serious threat to health.

South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) responded to News13’s inquiry about possibly changing the advisory process by saying “We believe that our guidelines are protective for the public.”

Water testing

To learn more about what DHEC and Coastal Carolina University scientists test for in coast waters, follow the link about long term advisories in the “related content” section at the beginning of this story.

Dr. Kulberg also talked about the testing and why one certain type of bacteria is sought in the tests. The unedited conversation with her about that bacteria is below.

She also had these suggestions for anyone swimming in the ocean or any natural body of water:

  • Don’t swim for at least a day or two after a rainfall. Rain washes animal waste and potentially harmful pathogens into those bodies of water.
  • Don’t swallow the water. Ingesting certain bacteria can cause gastro-intestinal sickness.
  • Don’t swin with an open cut or other wounds. The potential for infection increased significantly in open sores.

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