Waccamaw River Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program

The Waccamaw River Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program is a strong example of a partnership with local governments whose funding is largely driven by local stormwater permit requirements.

The Waccamaw River is an outstanding example of a southern blackwater stream. Starting in North Carolina, the river flows southeast into South Carolina and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. Still largely healthy, the watershed is home to rare, threatened and endangered species of plants and diverse wildlife species, including American Black Bears and several endemic plants and animals. A diverse coalition of partners created the Waccamaw River Blue Trail in 2009, with the goal of improving recreational opportunities, connecting communities to their hometown river, and protecting the river for future generations. Challenges facing the Waccamaw River include bacterial contamination, fish consumption advisories for mercury, wetlands losses, and issues related to increased development.

Program basics: The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® interested in creating a volunteer monitoring program, and the local governments were interested in meeting Clean Water Act stormwater permit requirements for public involvement. These mutual needs launched the Waccamaw River Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program with Coastal Carolina University providing technical support.

Established in 2006, the Program monitors 12 sites in South Carolina and 6 sites in North Carolina. Approximately 50 volunteers work in teams of 3 to 5. Each team samples one, two or three sites twice a month year-around, monitoring for a wide variety of parameters including dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity and temperature with handheld meters in the field; using colorimetric strips to check ammonia, nitrate and nitrite also in the field; and taking water  samples home for measurement of turbidity using a portable meter and for determination of bacteria counts, specifically for E. coli and total coliform by plating, incubating and counting bacterial colonies. Volunteers enter their data into an online database. These data undergo a quality assurance, quality control check by the volunteer monitoring coordinator and other administrative staff before they are approved for submission to a publically accessible online database.

Partnership and roles: The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® recruits, trains and manages the volunteer monitors and hosts an annual public meeting where the volunteer monitoring data is shared and discussed with stakeholders, including the public, and an annual volunteer meeting at which issues may be discussed and additional training is provided.  The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® also reviews incoming data and notifies appropriate agencies if the monitoring results show potential problems, including illicit discharges and other water quality excursions. The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® and volunteers assist the regulatory agencies in illicit discharge investigation and follow-up to their resolution.

Coastal Carolina University’s Waccamaw Watershed Academy manages the financial side of the program, houses the Volunteer Monitoring Coordinator, maintains the online database for volunteer data, purchases and maintains equipment, and coordinates requirements such as Quality Assurance Quality Control project plans. The Waccamaw Watershed Academy and Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® regularly interact with the local municipalities to ensure that project needs are met and hold twice yearly meetings with the regulating municipalities as part of the Coastal Waccamaw Stormwater Education Consortium.

The City of Conway, Horry County and Georgetown County are key partners in the effort.  Funding is provided from stormwater utility fees from the three local governments. These entities are covered under a stormwater permit (a Municipal Separate Stormwater Sewer System or MS4 permit), which motivates them to participate in the volunteer monitoring program.  Funding the program contributes to compliance of the local governments’ stormwater permit requirements for public education and outreach, public involvement and participation, and illicit discharge detection.

The investment by local governments is significant. Horry County alone spends approximately $67,000 per year on ten volunteer monitoring sites – 8 on the Waccamaw River and 2 in Murrells Inlet. This covers costs for materials, equipment, and lab oversight and quality control at the Waccamaw Watershed Academy. In addition, the county cost-shares with the U.S. Geological Survey for continuous monitoring gages on the river, monitoring at an ocean fishing pier, and bacterial source tracking in specific areas. The County also provides funds for the Coastal Waccamaw Stormwater Education Consortium.

Horry County staff list other benefits as well, including: detection of illicit discharges; long-term trend analysis and understanding the river system more thoroughly; spawning additional monitoring programs based on the success of the Waccamaw River program; and developing a core group of educated citizens that serve as advocates for the river.

The volunteers do not necessarily come to the program with a thorough scientific or policy background, but their participation educates them about the river system and impacts from our land-based activities. Trend analysis and reporting from Coastal Carolina University has helped the stormwater programs to gain a better understanding of our unique river system and its baseline conditions, so that we can better understand its response to climate variability such as drought and other phenomena.

And the benefits go beyond the direct impacts of monitoring efforts.  The county has developed strong relationships with Coastal Carolina University and the Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® program, which has resulted in better communication and support for a variety of initiatives related to water quality and sustainable land use. 

Use of data: Volunteer data are used in several ways. Most directly, the local governments use the data as part of their stormwater management program. After each sampling event, Coastal Carolina University’s Waccamaw Watershed Academy creates a provisional report of results, which summarizes findings and trends. The information is used in the illicit discharge detection effort, as well as in adjusting ongoing management efforts.  In addition to identifying exceedances of water quality standards, the University has established a method for identifying “somewhat unusual” or “highly unusual” results for each sampling site using  percentile thresholds computed from  nearly seven years of water quality data. This methodology enables the stakeholders to identify conditions that require immediate attention as highly unusual conditions are indicative of an ongoing illicit discharge.

The Program also hosts an annual public meeting where the data and its significance is discussed with a diverse audience, including volunteers, the media, the local governments that fund the effort, other agencies, other interested parties and the public at large.

The Program is working on revisions of its Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) with a plan to seek approval by the South Carolina Department of Environmental Control. Because the program’s QAPP is not approved by the state, project data cannot be officially used in the state’s impaired waters listing program or for other regulatory purposes. However, the data are shared with the state in order to help prioritize where official state monitoring may be needed to follow up on volunteer-identified problem areas.  Because the volunteers are monitoring more locations on the Waccamaw more regularly than the state program can manage, the volunteer data help direct the state’s resources more efficiently by targeting state monitoring.

Lessons learned:

  • Independent programs can be hard to establish and maintain, but a mutually beneficial partnership – such as using volunteer efforts to fulfill part of a regulatory requirement – can provide steady investment.
  • Working in partnership with others on volunteer water quality monitoring Programs may help strengthen your relationship with partners in other ways.
  • Recruitment of volunteers is an on-going challenge, requiring constant effort.
  • As in any kind of volunteer monitoring effort, helping volunteers see the results of their work over the short and the long-haul is critical, and a partnership can help you do just that.
  • Volunteer monitoring can bring positive notoriety to a small organization, but volunteers do not necessarily translate into members.