College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture

Clemson seeks community input into cleanup plan for Edisto waterways


The Edisto Island community 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.

Scenic view of waterways around Edisto Island.
Through funding from S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, 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.

As of July, 24 locations in this area were listed as impaired for either bacteria or turbidity, and unsafe bacteria levels have led to closures of many shellfish beds for harvesting. But 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.”

By visiting, 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.

“The key to all this is that we’re trying to really do a community-driven effort at creating a watershed plan and, right from the get-go, we’ve had a lot of support and participation,” Scaroni said. “We just want to make sure we really hear the voices of residents across the whole watershed.”

Edisto Island Open Land Trust Executive Director John Girault said his organization is dedicated to land conservation and the overall quality of life for humans and wildlife in the community, making this project an essential one toward reaching those goals.

Shellfish bed near Edisto Island.
Unsafe bacteria levels can lead to closures of shellfish beds for harvesting, and a new Clemson University project aims to identify sources of water pollution in and around Edisto Island.

“Enhancing and safeguarding our water resources is naturally part of our holistic approach to protecting this place that so many love,” 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.”

“Our hope is that this plan will more definitively identify the reasons our water bodies are impaired or contaminated, and then provide a thorough list of options and avenues we can help institute in order to begin correcting these problems,” he added. “We have been talking about the need for ways to address our water quality for many years, so we could not be more excited to have Clemson leading this study and developing this phase of the plan.”

While the outreach portion of the project will be limited, for the time being, to virtual interactions rather than in-person stakeholder engagement, paper copies of the survey and maps are available for pickup and drop-off at the Edisto Island Open Land Trust office, 547 Highway 174, Edisto Island, SC 29438.

And community input is vital to the creation of a watershed plan. A watershed simply 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.

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.

But 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.”

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