Charleston Waterkeeper seeks to protect the environment, one waterway at a time
The water in the Lowcountry is one of its most distinguishing outdoor features. Beaches, rivers, and marshes pepper the map of Charleston with more recreational activities than many other tourist attractions, and with each of those sights comes an integral environmental element.
“It’s important for folks to understand that the days of passively protecting all of this are gone,” said Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley. “You can’t just sort of set it aside and say ‘we’re not going to touch that.’ All of this is impacted by the hand of man, whether we want to believe it or not. So, that means we have a role to play in making sure that it stays as healthy as possible.”
For Wunderley and his team, keeping the environment safe goes a little further than picking up trash.
Charleston Waterkeeper is the local branch of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit organization that advocates for clean and safe water in all forms. With a very small staff in the Charleston office, the group spends its time testing waterways for bacteria and offering educational programs to the community. “We’re a conservation organization and we work to protect and restore Charleston’s waterways, so folks like you can use them without fear of pollution,” Wunderley explained. “We do that all for fishing, swimming, paddling, surfing, sailing, very hands on work.”
During the months of May through October, Charleston Waterkeeper takes bacteria samples from 15 popular Charleston waterway sites. “If you’re going to think about it as water area, it would be the harbor, the Ashley, the Cooper, the Wando, and the Stono River, and then all the marshes and creeks and areas like that that are a part of it,” Wunderley said.
Among the spots tested, James Island Creek and Shem Creek are regularly the most polluted. “This is our seventh year and what we find is a lot of creeks especially aren’t safe for swimming most of the time,” he commented. “Two-thirds of the samples we take out of Shem Creek don’t meet state standards for safe recreational use.”
The results of the weekly tests are put on www.theswimguide.org for everyone to see, with an indicator explaining if the body of water meets safety standards. “They can go there and make an informed choice about whether or not they can get in the water, whether they want their family to get in the water. That’s designed to help keep the public safe,” Wunderley said.
Several regular occurrences have been noticed by the organization. “Every time we have one of those flooding events, one of those big rainstorm events, it’s an ecological disaster for our waterways,” he stated. “The volume of polluted water is just astronomical. After the October 2015 floods a few years, it took weeks before things returned to normal.”
According to Wunderley, floodwaters bring run-off from streets, including oil, waste, pesticides, and bacteria to waterways. “When the floodwaters recede, they recede to some place like Shem Creek,” he added.
Still, citizens can take action to protect waterways in their daily life.
“The easiest and most straightforward thing is to pick up after your dog, especially in your own backyard. People are a lot more apt to do it in public parks around the sidewalk or things like that, but what we find is people aren’t so quick to do it in their own backyard,” Wunderley offered. “Dog waste, as a source of bacteria, is incredibly dense.”
Education is another way that Waterkeeper hopes to strengthen the community’s ability to keep water safe. “A lot of our issues don’t originate inland and then come towards us. You hear that misconception a lot,” Wunderley said. “A lot of folks are like ‘that pollution’s coming down from Columbia or from somewhere else,’ but really it’s coming from all of us right here.”
In addition, Wunderley encourages residents to move away from single-use plastic items and styrofoam, and support efforts to update sewage treatment systems.
Many of their education and volunteer initiatives begin with Charleston Waterkeeper taking interested parties out on the water. “We put people out on the marsh, we put people out on the creeks, and give them that experience and show them what the problem is firsthand,” he explained.
Charleston Waterkeeper also keeps volunteers active with waterway cleanups, oyster recycling, and a citizen science monitoring program, in which participants learn the basic chemistry behind water testing.
Wunderley believes that education is beneficial now more than ever because of the high volume of transplants moving to the Lowcountry. “They’ll move down from New York or they’ll move from somewhere in that big Northeast megapolis and say ‘oh, it’s so pristine,’ but it couldn’t be further from the truth,” he bluntly said. “It’s polluted, number one, and it’s totally engineered.”
Water is an invaluable resource to any community, but for Charleston and what its waterways offer, it’s a unique component that brings tourism and keeps locals happy.
“We love Charleston and that’s why we love it: because of the surrounding water and natural resources,” Wunderley stated. “And if it’s not safe to go swimming, if it’s not safe to catch and eat a fish, if it’s not safe to harvest oysters, what are we? We’re just another community with polluted waterways and we’ve lost our soul.”