Along a scenic river commonly used for recreation in Columbia, South Carolina, there are some major permitted discharge sources (six within the 10-mile stretch), as well as several nonpoint sources of bacteria that flow into the river during rain events.
A history of unpermitted discharges to this river resulted in multiple fines to permit holders as well as an active Riverkeeper, which felt the need to fill the role of watchdog regarding regulatory compliance issues that routinely affected the river. The weekend of July 4, 2016, a significant discharge resulted in the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control (SCDHEC’s) issuance of swim advisories at popular recreational entry points onto the river. The result was some unfavorable media coverage for regulators and permit holders as well as a significant loss of revenue for several businesses engaged in boat rental and/or river access fees.
As a result of this event, the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control (DHEC) convened a series of three meetings as follows:
1) A group of stakeholders ranging from county park managers to boat rental companies, Riverkeeper, homeowners associations, and the local Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens were brought together to discuss what could be done collaboratively to improve and maintain conditions on the river that were more protective of public health and the environment. 2) A second meeting was convened with all of the permitted point source dischargers into the river. Hard conversations were held regarding the way in which equipment upsets, operator errors and other root causes of unpermitted discharges could be addressed. 3) The third meeting was a combined meeting that included all interested stakeholders. Attendees at each of the two previous meetings approached SCDHEC staff separately and asked the same question: “How did you get THEM to come to this meeting?!” Staff’s reply was, “They want the same thing you do.”
That third meeting was the start of an unlikely partnership. After a great deal of discussion, the group concluded that additional data would provide users of the river with information that they could then use to make better decisions about when and where to recreate on the river. Stakeholder entities asked DHEC to come up with what the cost of an enhanced monitoring program would be and what it would look like. A recommendation was made to sample bacteria weekly at eight locations. The local Council of Governments agreed to manage the money if other partners would contribute to the cause. A technical and communication work group was formed. The University of South Carolina, Arnold School of Public Health agreed to establish a website from which the weekly data is displayed (howsmyscriver.org). Three weeks after the plan was laid out, a contractor was hired and was on the river taking samples. The coalition now meets periodically to tweak the process and plans to provide this enhanced river monitoring from May to September each year.
Results to Date:
The benefits of this collaborative partnership are many. First and foremost, it results in an increased level of trust between entities that often view an issue from different perspectives. In addition, it shows the power of convening stakeholders who all ultimately have the same goal, just different roles. There is an increase in mutual respect, a greater level of civil (outside of the media) communication among what in the past were adverse parties. A significant educational opportunity is woven throughout this effort in which SCDHEC can help the public better understand and manage the risks associated with its use of recreational waters. Ultimately, the result is a safer, healthier river and better informed citizens.
The model created is scalable and reproducible, and the department hopes to find other opportunities to put it to use within South Carolina. SCDHEC is also more than happy to share it with any other agencies interested in giving it a try!
Assistant Bureau Chief, Bureau of Water
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control