Minding our Ps and Qs

“Minding our Ps and Qs”

When reflecting on this past month this phrase came to mind.  Bear with me while I explain and forgive me if you find it too much of a stretch.

First, I was thinking about the two ways we can think about water; quantity and quality, “qs”.  Minding water quality and quantity is what we at WRF do.

Second, a possible origin of this phrase, reminding the bartender to keep track of pints and quarts that are consumed by pub patrons, is quite appropriate though in our case we are dealing with much larger volumes; somewhere on the scale of 20,000 cubic feet per second which was nearly 9 million gallons of water per minute flowing past the gage at Conway Marina at the crest of the flood.

Third, one of wikipedia's definitions of “minding your ps and qs” is “being on your best behavior”. Thinking back to the day that the Waccamaw actually crested, Oct 18th, WRF staff was hosting a water quality public education event, paddling the river with a photographer and reporter to patrol and document conditions at the peak of the flood, and monitoring conditions from the sky with a drone.  That day was a true example of what we do for this community.  Our activities on that Tuesday are a great example of how WRF staff has been working tirelessly to do as much as we can for this community at this time of increased environmental and human health risks.  Further, as part of our mission, it is our goal to encourage every part of this community to be at its best in regards to behaviors that affect water quality.  We remind everyone, individuals to companies and government agencies, to “mind their ps and qs”. That means that we promote smart development, improvements to infrastructure that better protects water quality as well as communities, and land conservation.  We fight sources of point and non-point source pollution, be it litter, erosion, or toxic industrial and farming waste, and encourage everyone to do the same.  These threats have no place in or near our rivers.

For the second year in a row, we have been hit by unusual storms and weather patterns that generated extraordinary conditions throughout this region.  The huge amount of rain that fell throughout the Winyah Bay Watershed led to record breaking floods.  In Conway the Waccamaw crested on October 18th at 17.89 ft.  This means the river was around 10 feet above the average gage height for that site and exceeded the 1928 record by a little over an inch.  The Lumber River broke its all-time records by over 3 feet on October 16th.  The little Pee Dee at Galivants Ferry broke its record by over 1 feet on October 12th. 

Water quantity is an obvious challenge for everyone in this community right now.  The loss of property, damages to infrastructure and the impairments to the economy and daily life that are still occurring nearly a month after the storm and weeks since the rivers crested are hard to ignore but these floods are also a jarring reminder of the importance of Winyah Rivers Foundation’s work.   Our job is to protect clean water so our focus is on the water quality impacts related to these events. We are attentive to risks to both human and ecological health.  We are always concerned about the hazards on land finding their way into our waters, but the threat is exponentially higher when the rivers overtake the land.  These are the times when, no matter the infrastructure and precautionary measures put in place, it is impossible to keep things like industrial waste, sewage, litter, pet and farming waste, sediment, and other harmful and toxic pollutants out of the water. 

Some of the water quality changes that we expect are natural and some are not and many are unfortunately unavoidable.  We see processes like dilution in play.  For example the conductivity falls.  Conductivity is a measure of the concentration of dissolved salts in water so when there is a lot of rain water (which has low conductivity) in a river system there is a understandable drop in conductivity because the rain has essentially diluted the river just like you can water down your coffee or tea.  Speaking of tea, our black water rivers like the Waccamaw and the Black, which are dark in color due to the high levels of tannins in the water, just like a cup of tea, get even darker.  All that water mingling with the plant matter (leaves mostly) in the swamps leaches more of these tannins and organic material into the water.  This makes it appear darker and also makes the water more acidic (decreased pH).  Another sequence in the chain of events associated with the increased organic material in the water is a decrease in dissolved oxygen.  The bacteria (naturally present in the system) that breaks down the organic (mostly plant) material requires oxygen to carry out their work.  This increased oxygen demand causes the levels of this vital element in water to fall which in turn can threaten organisms such as fish that require it for survival.  All of these are very normal changes in conditions during flooding events. 

These flood events are natural and normal for the rivers. The struggle is when our communities and the associated hazards to water quality are in the path of the flooding.  When you add human impacts into the equation (within the watershed and especially in the floodplains of the rivers) the risk of things like harmful E.coli bacteria (from human or animal waste) and toxic chemicals and compounds found in oil, gas, detergents, coal ash, industrial farm waste, and waste water affecting our water quality is very real.  These pollutants end up in our ground water, river and eventually ocean water, the sediments, and the plants and animals that live in those waters.  The contaminants persist there for a very long time where they can have a negative impact on our human and ecosystem health.

These floods can be as disastrous to our rivers are they are to our life on land.   This is where Winyah Rivers Foundation comes in. We monitor, advocate, educate, and take action towards reducing the negative impacts of our day to day lives as well as these extraordinary events on our waters.  We encourage land and wetland conservation, sustainable development, and smart planning in order to combat the impact of this type of event.  We fight to get and keep hazards out of the flood plain and away from our waters.  We collect data that gives us a very sound baseline for comparison during these extraordinary times.  We engage the community to clean up their trash to keep it out of these rivers which is where it inevitably ends up after these floods.

In response to Hurricane Matthew and the subsequent flooding we have used all of our resources to stay alert and informed to conditions on our rivers.  Using the water quality data collected by USGS, CCU EQL, and our water quality monitoring teams we have been able to track conditions along the Waccamaw.  We have observed the natural changes in water quality conditions (mentioned above) that we would expect to see during an event like this.  We have also been worked hard to collect, report and investigate instances of potential environmental hazards.  Citizens, volunteers and WRF staff have been in the field by land, water, and in the air assessing the damages.  We have also been in communication with county, state, and federal agencies to stay informed on happenings regarding water quality.  Any incident or observation that we learn about through our water quality monitoring, patrols, or reports from concerned citizens and find concerning, we report to the agencies so then can investigate and take any necessary action. Our own April O’Leary discovered and reported a sunken boat leaking gas near Conway as well as a fish kill in Crabtree Swamp.  

With the flood waters lapping at the dikes around the old Grainger site and its coal ash ponds on the banks of the Waccamaw in Conway, we were reminded of the risks associated with this type of industry. The situation at this facility began to move in the right direction when Santee Cooper, in response to legal action by WRF and partners, started removing and recycling the coal ash from the unlined ash ponds that are leaching toxic compounds into ground and river water.  These two years of dangerous flooding have served as a reminder of the importance of the work done but also as a reminder that until the ash is all removed, we are at risk for a catastrophic incident so we all must stay alert.  We have been in touch with Santee Cooper about the site since the week after the storm and have also included it in our patrols. They assured us that conditions are being monitored 24/7, they are staged and ready for any potential problems, and that they have been working with SC DHEC in the precautionary and proactive actions taken in response to their concerns at the site.  They decided as a precautionary measure to pump water into an emptied chamber of one of the ash ponds to counteract the pressure from the surrounding flood waters.  They also discovered, reported and responded to an incident of ash in the canal that runs through the site that according to their reports blew into the canal.   While we will not be at ease until all of the coal ash is removed we are appreciative of Santee Cooper maintaining open lines of communication and even more so that they will be removing the ash entirely.

Many times I have been quoted saying that these rivers have shaped our community.  I am hopeful that we continue to be influenced by our rivers.  We need to learn from these events and be thoughtful about how our actions on land affect the conditions of the water.  The fact of the matter is that this type of “extraordinary” event is becoming more ordinary and we need to be prepared.  Our weather and water are and will continue to be affected by the changing climate.  We need to let this event shape our consciousness of our rivers and to spur us into action to protect clean water for the future of our community.

We rely on USGS gages for gage height, discharge data and other water quality conditions. Check out these gages here.

Other neat storm and flood related resources can be found below.