Beaufort County is a great example of why this coastal region of the Southeast is referred to as the Lowcountry. Our vast expanses of salt marshes and our sea islands landscape are actually at or even below sea level. We do not have the rolling hills of our coastal plain or upstate counties. And due to our topography and a few other items, such as soil type and proximity to ground water, things in the Lowcountry tend to flow a little differently here than elsewhere. Our rivers and creeks are tidal, meaning they are almost all exclusively influenced by the rise and fall of the Atlantic Ocean. However, the waters here also are affected by what happens in the Port Royal drainage area, which extends into surrounding counties.
Potential hazards to Port Royal Sound ecosystem
Runoff is one example of how things tend to flow a little differently in the Lowcountry. Runoff comes in many forms, including rain from storms, hoses left on while washing cars, overwatered lawns, even improperly draining swimming pools or ponds. Left to nature’s devices, the runoff would slowly penetrate into the soil, the vegetation would filter out impurities, and there would be a clean recharge to our ground water. But we have disrupted this natural flow by our desire to be close to the salt marsh. As more people move to the coast, infrastructure increases and naturally vegetated areas decrease. We now have more impervious surfaces, such as rooftops, driveways and parking lots, and little to no vegetation to slow the flow of runoff before it gets to the marsh. When we have a big rain event, large volumes of runoff move rapidly across hard surfaces, funnel into storm drains and then dump right into our salt marshes.
Fresh water can be harmful to our salt marshes? Yes, it’s true!
Large volumes of fresh-water runoff into our salt marshes stress this dynamic ecosystem. Beaufort County salt marshes are high in salinity, and many of our marine organisms we love to see are adapted to this environmental condition. We must be mindful that even slight changes in salinity (28-30ppt, respectively) can be detrimental to marine organism larva and larva development, including phytoplankton, crabs, even our beloved shrimp. The loss of those marine organisms would drastically affect the health of other organisms up the food chain, such as our sport fish, dolphins, sharks and even alligators.
Pollutants and our salt marshes – the effects
Did you know that nonpoint pollution accounted for at least 70 percent of South Carolina’s oyster bed closures and harvesting restrictions? So you may wonder, “What is nonpoint pollution and how does this affect me?” The majority of nonpoint pollution is in the form of fresh-water runoff. After a rain event, runoff flows over the ground and lots of materials are picked up and carried into the storm drain. Polluted fresh-water runoff then enters, unfiltered, into our salt marshes. Runoff can carry litter, debris, yard waste, pet waste, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, oil, metals, chemicals and bacteria, just to list a few. Some of those items, such as metals and chemicals, can persist a long time in our waters. Also, as metals and chemicals break down, they give off toxins that are often absorbed by our shellfish, such as oysters, and other marine organisms. This can be extremely detrimental to the food chain and marine organisms, and it can adversely affect human health. The health of our salt marshes are strong indicators of human health – the healthier an ecosystem, the healthier the people who cherish and care for it.
Easy things you can do to help:
Buffers are areas of planted vegetation that help to create a “buffer” between your yard and any body of water, such as our salt marshes. Even if you don’t live on the salt marsh, planting vegetation can help reduce runoff. Every plant you encourage to grow will pull up and filter fresh-water runoff and reduce pollution.
By capturing water from your roof and gutters, rain barrels reduce the amount of water entering our overloaded storm systems, prevent ponding and flooding in yards and streets, and reduce the amount of harmful pollutants carried into local waters. They also provide a free and sustainable resource to water your yard or gardens.
Be sure to check the weather. If it looks like rain, turn off your sprinkler system. A good one-inch rain is perfect for most yards.
It’s important to pick up after your pets. Rain washes dog poop into water systems, infiltrating drinking and swimming water.