Improving the Waters Surrounding Edisto Island, SC @GullahGeechee

The Edisto Island, SC community in the Gullah/Geechee Nation relies upon its surrounding waterways for everything from food to recreation to employment, and Clemson University is looking for local knowledge about the best ways to protect them.

Through funding from S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), scientists from Clemson University’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation and Clemson Cooperative Extension are working to develop a watershed-based plan for the three sub-watersheds encompassing Edisto Island and the town of Edisto Beach.

With partners including S.C. Department of Natural Resources, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and Edisto Island Open Land Trust, Clemson Extension is working with the Edisto community to create a watershed plan to address pollution in Store Creek, the South Edisto River-Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and the Dawho River-North Edisto River. Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation (www.QueenQuet.com) and Founder of the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition (www.GullahGeechee.net) is serving as one of the advisors for this plan.

As of July 2020, 24 locations in around Edisto were listed as impaired for either bacteria or turbidity. Unsafe bacteria levels have led to closures of many shellfish beds for harvesting. So, Clemson’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation and Clemson Extension are working with local and state agencies to create a community-driven watershed plan for the area — a first step toward reducing pollution and improving water quality for the Edisto community.

Through funding from S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, Clemson Assistant Professor Amy Scaroni and others are working to develop a watershed-based plan for the three sub-watersheds encompassing Edisto Island and the town of Edisto Beach.

The first step, Scaroni said, is drawing attention to the effort to get the community involved.

“Stakeholder engagement is a key piece of this project because we really want to hear what residents’ concerns are with the watershed — what they see on the ground, have them help identify potential issues, changes over time and really what they value about local waterways,” Scaroni said. “When we design this plan with community input, we want to make sure we’re addressing all their concerns and really finding a way to meet the community needs through restoration.”

Paper copies of the survey and maps are available for pickup and drop-off at the Edisto Island Open Land Trust office at 547 Highway 174 on Edisto Island, SC 29438. However, by visiting edistowatershedplan.org, community members can participate in an online survey to gather input about watershed concerns and also engage in a participatory mapping exercise where users may click points on a map and input information to identify issues or sources of pollution that researchers may not uncover through their own assessment.

A “watershed” refers to the area of land where all the water that drains off goes into the same stream, lake or other water body. Since everyone lives in a watershed, the actions we take affect our downstream rivers, lakes and estuaries. “Enhancing and safeguarding our water resources is naturally part of our holistic approach to protecting this place that so many love,” Edisto Island Open Land Trust Executive Director John Girault said. “Residents and visitors to Edisto Island and Beach spend a great deal of time enjoying our water resources for recreation, employment and as a food resource. The impairment of our waterways is not widely known or understood by our community, so revealing and identifying the problems will be critical in working to remedy our issues.”

The survey and mapping exercise, in turn, will help inform Clemson’s scientists as they study the watershed to identify the best management practices for combating pollution.

“In addition to developing a better, broader understanding of the watershed, the other parts of the watershed assessment include ‘windshield surveys’ — which really means driving around and touring the watershed and ground-truthing things that we may have seen on our GIS maps,” Scaroni said.

The plan will focus specifically on water quality, with bacteria and sediment the main pollutants of concern, in the waterways around Edisto. Bacteria, specifically fecal bacteria, is the primary focus and can come from a variety of potential sources, both human and animal.

While bacteria is the foremost concern, sediment in the water is also a problem. Sediment creates turbidity — basically, cloudy water — which can affect light penetration and dissolved oxygen levels, which in turn make it difficult for the plants and animals that live in that water to survive. Sediment comes from areas of bare soil across the watershed or actively eroding locations, which researchers say can be identified through the watershed assessment and community input.

After identifying community concerns and potential sources of pollution, the goal is to create a watershed plan that identifies a roadmap to reducing bacteria and sediment issues. The end product will be a non-regulatory plan — meaning it will involve recommendations of voluntary best management practices across the watershed, not actual legal mandates.

“We’re going to try to figure out where the biggest sources of pollution are, and then make recommendations to target those with management efforts,” she said. “Those could be anything from outreach and education to vegetative buffers along stream banks to prevent erosion; it might involve replacing failing septic systems. There are a variety of options, and one of the ways that we’ll determine some of those options is by calculating pollution reduction efficiencies associated with different management actions. We’re going to try to prioritize management actions that work best for the community: what they want to see but also what gives them the biggest bang for their buck with pollution reduction.”

The Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition is very pleased to engage in this process given the work that they did to support getting the Edisto Island Scenic Byway to come into existence. Polluted waters detract from the beauty of the area as well as the health of the citizens of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. So, we are looking forward to this project and others that will help to cleanse our waterways and sustain the quality of life of our communities.

Ef hunnuh gwine Edisto, mek sho fa see de Hutchinson House wha ain dey faah frum de wata tall tall:

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