The first two years of a multi-year cooperative project between the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control show that South Carolina's estuaries are generally in good condition.

The project, South Carolina Estuarine and Coastal Assessment Program, which goes by the acronym SCECAP, began in 1999 and is now in its fourth year. For the first time, the two state agencies are evaluating the overall condition of estuarine habitats using integrated measures of water and sediment quality, and the condition of the fish and other animals. "We want people to know we're out there determining the overall quality of our state's environmentally important estuaries," said Dr. Bob Van Dolah of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and program leader of SCECAP.

Scientists analyzed data taken from various locations, and developed an overall habitat quality score for each site sampled and for the state's coastal zone overall. Based on first two years of data from 1999-2000, South Carolina's estuaries are generally in good condition. Portions of the state's estuaries that were marginal were primarily located in developed watersheds, although a few sites had no obvious sources of human influence.

Sampling at various stations showed that the abundance of fish and other organisms was significantly higher in tidal creeks than in open water. "This indicates that different criteria should be used for each habitat type when defining whether conditions are poor or normal," Van Dolah said. Tidal creeks are important to the environment as they provide food, refuge from predators, and critical habitats for the life cycle of the majority of marine species.

The legislative delegations of Beaufort, Charleston, Georgetown and Horry counties provided funding to purchase instruments that measure water quality, and these instruments were critical to gathering the proper information and data. "The SCECAP program draws upon expertise within each agency and focuses them at the same locations for a more comprehensive look at conditions than either agency could accomplish alone," said David Chestnut, senior scientist for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's (DHEC) Bureau of Water and the DHEC program leader on this cooperative effort. "By looking at the fish, shrimp, and crab communities, along with sediment quality and how it affects the organisms living there, as well as actual water quality, we get a much better picture of overall habitat quality. Another big benefit to the SCECAP approach, is that we are specifically including many smaller tide creek water bodies that are most closely linked to runoff and other pressures associated with increased coastal development."

"The conclusions in the first SCECAP report confirm that in general the majority of South Carolina's coastal habitat is in good shape," said Alton Boozer, chief of DHEC's Bureau of Water. "This additional information basically supports the findings of DHEC's historic Ambient Surface Water Quality Monitoring efforts, but expands the basis for those conclusions." Depending on funding, both agencies envision SCECAP to be a long-term project to look at estuarine conditions over time. Future sampling should indicate if habitat quality throughout the state is similar over time, or if it is getting worse with increased coastal development pressures.

The SCECAP project involves several federal partners including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Ocean Service's Laboratory in Charleston and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We're measuring significantly more than either state agency could measure on its own, largely due to additional financial support from some of these federal agencies," Van Dolah said. The public can view the SCECAP educational and technical reports at http://mrl.cofc.edu/pubs.html.


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