Standing stormwater in drainage ditches that don’t properly drain is a cause for concern for communities in Beaufort County. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY

A brand new document addressing the issues created by stormwater has been adopted by Beaufort County, and is making its way through the staffs and councils of Jasper County, the City of Beaufort, towns of Bluffton, Port Royal and Hardeeville.

The Southern Lowcountry Stormwater Design Manual was a coordinated effort by representatives of the counties and municipalities to protect the region’s waterbodies. The work began in 2018 and a final draft was finished in March 2020.

Although all of the agencies listed participated in creating the document, only Beaufort County has finalized adoption of the document.

“This manual is not mandated. Beaufort County is the only municipality that has adopted the standards in this manual at this time,” said county Stormwater Manager Katie Herrera. “All developments within the unincorporated portion of Beaufort County are managed by this manual.”

“Stormwater” might sound like just a lot of water, but what that water does after a storm is cause for concern, particularly for communities that depend upon waterways for commerce and recreation.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control website states, “Stormwater runoff occurs when precipitation from rain or snowmelt flows over the ground. Impervious surfaces like driveways, sidewalks and streets prevent stormwater from naturally soaking into the ground.”

“Stormwater can pick up debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and flow into a storm sewer system or directly to a lake, stream, river, wetland or coastal water,” Herrera said. “Anything that enters a storm sewer system is discharged untreated into the waterbodies we use for swimming, fishing, and providing drinking water. Polluted stormwater runoff can have many adverse effects on plants, fish, animals and people.”

Unlike household water supplies, stormwater is not treated. If someone dumps a bag of trash on the road, it will eventually be carried to a drain, ending up in local waterways and affecting the offshore ecosystem.  “What we do on land in the ecosystem affects what’s offshore,” Herrera said.

The effects of stormwater aren’t divided by property lines, nor limited to one town or another.

“Stoney Crest Plantation Campground RV Park is a great example of why we need this,” said Debbie Szpanka, Town of Bluffton’s public information officer. “It’s in Beaufort County, but its stormwater and its pollutants flow into the Town of Bluffton watershed. (The water) is not respectful of jurisdictions, and is a perfect example of why we should all be working together. What happens in one jurisdiction affects another jurisdiction, so it’s important that we have consistent standard operating procedures and uniform practices.”

Bluffton has not yet adopted the manual, although Szpanka said it will likely be on an upcoming town council agenda in the next few months.

“For the county as a whole, this is the first step in improving the conditions as we step forward for the next 20 years, and as we standardize the practices,” said Chris Ophardt, Beaufort County public information officer.

County-wide, everyone has the same stormwater issues.

“The county does have the option to increase regulatory requirements in impaired waterbodies. In the Okatie River, we have the ability to have more stringent requirements,” Hererra said. “Our requirements are already very stringent, and we have not had to use that in recent memory, but we do have the option to increase the requirements.”

It might not be readily apparent to most residents, but the proper management of stormwater after serious rain events provides for safely draining county roads.

“We benefit by regulating stormwater runoff. Because this place is so unique and 50% of the county is water, most people live within a half mile of a creek or a river,” Herrera said. “It’s important to us that we have these regulations so that we are preserving what our ecosystem looks like, and to improve it, similar to the principles of the Clean Water Act, which is to make our waters fishable or potable. Certainly we are not going to drink out of the Okatie River, but we want the waters to be safe for our fisheries and our people.”

Hererra said that what Beaufort County residents do has an impact on the environment and, as stormwater manager, it’s important to her that those impacts are positive.

“Because we keep our county beautiful, we provide an attractive place for people to visit us. For the locals we enjoy eating outside, looking at the water. For business owners, they also manage their own properties and control water on site. Managing their own stormwater is a huge help,” Herrera said. “Keeping all that clean is a positive impact on what our economy looks like, and how our local businesses do.”

One method residents can use to inform county government departments about stormwater as well as illegal dumping, traffic light issues or other concerns is to use the Beaufort County Connect app, available for Android and iOS users.

“This sends your concerns directly to the relevant department,” said Hererra. “We have a lot of people, and they’re all over the county, but they may not be in an area near you when something happens. Our citizens are everywhere, so they can use this app, and we can respond as necessary.”

For more information on the Southern Lowcountry Stormwater Design Manual, visit beaufortcountysc.gov/stormwater.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.