As recreation season begins, river lovers hope for fewer swim advisories

WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Even in the rain, the Congaree River still sparkles with beauty.

"You come down here on a clean day, when the Saluda River's putting in, and you can see three or four feet into the water," said Michael Mayo, as he peered into the racing river.

Mayo is the owner of the Palmetto Outdoor Center, which rents out kayaks and tubes, offers tours, and more. Rain? He can deal with that. Pollution? Not so much.

"When it comes to pollution in the river, there's nothing more that we can do, really, than to shut down the operations," Mayo said.

For years, Mayo and others have complained about sewage discharges into rivers like the Lower Saluda. Mayo estimates that he's lost tens of thousands of dollars in business – because of bacteria-filled rivers – since 2008. Each and every season, the uncertainty hurts tourism, he said.

"I wouldn't think that they would dump manure on Williams-Brice Stadium just prior to a Florida football game. Why would they dump that into the river?" Mayo said.

But as this year's warm season arrives, and as people once again flock to the rivers, there's more hope than in years past. Mayo is optimistic. Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler is too.

"I think we're making big progress at that," Stangler said.

Stangler pointed to a huge victory from February when the Town of Lexington helped Carolina Water Service end a notorious discharge into the Saluda near Interstate 20. The Riverkeeper said another discharge near Friarsgate should also end soon too. As he waits for that, he's taking action too.

"We'll be collecting weekly bacteria samples from the Broad, Saluda, and Congaree Rivers from May until the end of September," Stangler said.

In the past, he'd only get data from a couple sites once a month. Now, he'll test 11 different sites once a week to help pinpoint polluters and, hopefully, give people like Mayo – and the thousands who enjoy the rivers – more peace of mind.

Of course, with more data comes a greater likelihood that more swim advisories could be the result. For instance, testing earlier this week led to a since-lifted swim advisory on Thursday in parts of the Lower Saluda and Congaree Rivers. The peak in bacteria was likely caused by stormwater runoff after a few days of rain.

Recently, a report from the Congaree Riverkeeper identified that more than 750,000 gallons of sewer spills are present in Midlands rivers and creeks.

However, Stangler says he and his staff will work to re-test the problem spots and cancel advisories as fast as possible.

He's also launched a website that goes along with the testing. You can go to to see if bacteria is too high for recreation at popular spots along the Broad, Saluda, and Congaree Rivers.

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