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DHEC’s Seasonal Water Quality Monitoring at S.C. Beaches Begins May 1

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 20, 2022

COLUMBIA, S.C. — To help keep South Carolina beaches a favorite destination during the summer months, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is soon beginning its seasonal monitoring of water quality along the coast. Every state with ocean-facing beaches performs beach water monitoring to help detect instances of elevated bacteria levels that have the potential to impact people’s health. 

From May 1-Oct. 30, DHEC collects either weekly or bi-weekly water samples at more than 120 locations along South Carolina's beaches, from Cherry Grove Beach near the South Carolina-North Carolina border to the southern end of Hilton Head Island. DHEC staff test these water samples for Enterococci bacteria. If elevated levels of the bacteria are detected, the agency issues public notices at that beach location and to local media outlets because high levels of Enterococci bacteria can negatively impact some people’s health.

“If levels of Enterococci bacteria exceed the standard limit, we quickly issue a short-term swimming advisory for that portion of the beach to help alert beach-goers,” said Bryan Rabon, Manager of Aquatic Science Programs with DHEC’s Bureau of Water. “A swimming advisory does not mean a beach is closed, it just means that this particular area of ocean water should be avoided until the bacteria levels return to normal. Most short-term swimming advisories last just a single day.”

DHEC tests ocean water for Enterococci bacteria, which are naturally found in warm-blooded animals, including humans. However, high levels of Enterococci in water indicate the potential risk for other organisms that may cause disease in humans, such as gastrointestinal illness or skin infections.

DHEC issues two types of swimming advisories: short-term (or “temporary”) and long-term:

  • Short-term swimming advisories typically last just one to two days and are issued once two consecutive water samples exceed the state water quality standard of 104 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (104CFU/100mL). Often, short-term swim advisories due to elevated bacteria levels are issued after heavy rains because rainwater carries nearby pollutants and contaminants into the ocean.

•    Long-term swimming advisories are issued for areas that have an increased possibility of high bacteria levels, typically where stormwater from pipes or small creeks flows across the beach and into the ocean. Signs posted at these locations provide advice about swimming in the immediate area due to the potential of high bacteria levels, usually associated with rainfall events. 

“We don’t always know the cause of the increase in bacteria in a certain area because there could be various contributing factors, however, it’s our job as South Carolina’s public health and environmental agency to keep people up to date on bacterial counts in ocean water,” Rabon said. “It’s considered safe to wade, collect shells and fish within a swimming advisory area, but we advise people who enter the water in an affected area to refrain from swallowing it, and we advise people with open wounds or compromised immune systems to avoid contact with the water in a swim advisory area.” 

In 2020, DHEC worked collaboratively with the City of Myrtle Beach, the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, and other Grand Strand-area organizations to pilot the Check My Beach program, which is designed to provide quick access to water quality information as well as general beach safety tips. In addition to being a one-stop-shop for online information about Horry County beaches, local businesses, governments, and tourism groups offer brochures and signage that promote Check My Beach. 

DHEC is working to expand Check My Beach to include other coastal communities. For additional information, visit scdhec.gov/beachmonitoring or CheckMyBeach.com.

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