Water Quality Monitoring

The May River

The May River Watershed (Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC) 030601100301) is located within the jurisdictions of Beaufort County and the Town of Bluffton, South Carolina approximately 17 miles northeast of Savannah and seven miles west of the Town of Hilton Head Island. 

The meandering 15-mile long river, just south of Old Town Bluffs, has been an integral part of Bluffton since it was established as a formal town in 1825. The river, which unlike most rivers, has no high ground headwaters that feed fresh water from upper streams and creeks. Instead it depends on tidal shifts that flush it out with saltwater from its down river mouth at the Calibogue Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. This flow has helped make the May River an oasis for oysters, shrimp, crabs and saltwater fin fish.

Shellfish Harvesting in the May River

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC)’s Shellfish Sanitation Program’s routinely monitors shellfish harvesting areas throughout South Carolina, including the May River for fecal coliform bacteria. Federal and state regulations use fecal coliform bacteria concentrations as an indicator of an increased risk to human health however these bacteria by themselves are not harmful to humans. 

In 2007, SCDHEC reported to the Town that fecal coliform levels in the headwaters of the May River were increasing. In the fall of 2009, the river received its first-ever shellfish harvesting classification down-grade in the headwaters due to high fecal coliform levels. According to Beaufort County’s Stormwater Management Plan (Thomas and Hutton 2006) the headwaters of the May River naturally were the most vulnerable to a possible fecal coliform impairment due to its large drainage area and reduced tidal flow.

A Regional Water Quality Laboratory

In 2008, in response to SCDHEC’s initial notification, the Town of Bluffton and the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) established the University’s Water Quality Laboratory (USCB-WQL). Since that time, the USCB-WQL has been capable of receiving and analyzing samples indicative of the environmental health of the region and the Town of Bluffton began a routine water quality monitoring program. 

The Town of Bluffton’s Water Quality Monitoring Program

To meet Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) requirements and implement current May River Watershed Action Plan (Action Plan) recommendations, the Town’s water quality program is currently comprised of three (3) program areas. These program areas are:

  1. USCB water quality laboratory monitoring;
  2. MS4 regulatory monitoring; and
  3. Microbial source tracking (MST) monitoring.

The Town of Bluffton’s weekly program, utilizing the USCB Water Quality Laboratory, has primarily focused on identifying fecal coliform hotspots within the May River Watershed. Program data was incorporated into the Action Plan, with the goal of driving water quality capital improvement project recommendations, policies, programs and funding. This program is currently being updated to reduce sampling frequency and incorporate nutrients such as total nitrogen and total phosphorus. 

In 2015, the Town of Bluffton was designated a MS4 Phase II community by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and SCDHEC. This designation required the Town of Bluffton to comply with regulations set forth by the EPA and SCDHEC, including developing and implementing a quarterly water quality monitoring program. The goal of this program is to identify and eliminate illicit discharges or non-stormwater discharges to the municipal storm sewer system that can negatively impact water quality.

In August 2016, the May River Watershed Action Plan Advisory Committee (WAPAC) recommended that Town staff implement an MST Program with the goal of determining if humans are a source of fecal coliform bacteria within the May River Watershed. The MST sampling program protocol was established focusing on wet weather events and identifying failing septic systems within the May River Watershed. The MST sampling program also supports the MS4 program by identifying septic tank failures, or illicit discharges, entering the storm drainage network. To date, a total of five (5) failing septic systems have been identified and failures remediated through regulatory actions following detections of human in the May River Watershed. With input from the WAPAC, this program also includes testing for dogs and horses as these are also sources for which mitigation plans/efforts can be made more easily, unlike wildlife sources.