The Vital Importance of our Water Resources

Water is essential for all life. It is necessary for us to live, but it also drives our industries and is the backbone of our ecosystems. Losing our finite amount of water resources to unsustainable usage or pollutants can have many negative consequences ranging from impacts on human health or ecosystem stability. Maintaining water quality and managing water resources is not an easy task. Water resources don’t stay in one place, rather, they are in constant motion traversing water bodies, the skies, and the ground. In the face of this difficulty, it is critical that we properly manage these vital resources with stewardship and sustainability and ensure protection from current and future threats.

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) was a revolutionary piece of legislation for the United States that attempted to address the largely poor water quality of its waterways. It also set a precedent for future policies and added some flexibility in order to meet future challenges.

After the CWA was enacted, polluting navigable waters became illegal without a permit. Drinking water standards were established with the creation of the Office of Water and federal assistance was provided for municipal sewage treatment plant production. Monitoring systems were put into place along with enforcement measures, without which would have left the act largely ineffective. Overall, the newly created point source program was a tremendous increase to the federal role in reducing and preventing water pollution and included state water quality standards into its permitting system while remaining the senior partner in the EPA’s system. This was an effective take on a federal and state cooperative approach for water quality. Later, amendments and additions in 1987 were made in an attempt to address the growing concern about non-point source solutions that negatively affect watersheds.


Despite the large success that the CWA has seen both legal and political hurdles have caused a lack of cooperation between states and the federal government on some key issues. Most notably, Congress failed to apply the cooperative model for non-source point pollution and hydrologic modifications. Non-source point pollution makes up about 75 percent of the pollution that causes rivers and lakes to fail to meet water quality standards1. Despite being within their prerogatives, most states fail to address non-source point pollution and avoid limiting water usage to further protect water quality. The only sanction the EPA has given to address non-source point pollution is withholding funding for the state program, which is often neglected.

One of the most recent changes to the Clean Water Act was in the Sackett v EPA case, where the technical language of “adjacent” was changed to mean adjoining. This means that many critical wetlands and marshes will no longer be under the scope of the Clean Water Act because they are located next to but not connected to a traditional navigable waterway. This decision ignores many of the basic concepts of water management. Many experts are concerned about how this will impact wetlands and marshes' ability to carry out their important ecological roles in flood prevention, maintaining habitat and breeding or nursing grounds for key wildlife, natural filtering of pollutants, and prevention of shoreline erosion, just to name a few.

How is South Carolina's Water Quality Impacted?

First things first. What is a Watershed?

Map from South Carolina Department of Natural Resources

A watershed is a land area that channels rainfall, snowmelt, and groundwater into creeks streams, and rivers into outflow points such as a lake, reservoir, or ocean. Many times, water ends up in underground reservoirs called aquifers. Watersheds can be both small and large, depending on the geography of the area. Water from higher ground creeks and streams often flows into larger rivers that wind up in larger water bodies. Along the way, water often picks up pollutants as it flows; potentially contaminating the ecosystems it passes through and the reservoir or ocean it ends up in.

A healthy and functioning watershed includes:

  • Intact and functioning headwater steams, floodplains, riparian corridors, biotic refuge, instream habitats, and biotic communities
  • Natural vegetation in the landscape
  • Hydrology, sediment transport, and consistent flow regimes or pattern of changes in the water levels

What is an impaired waterbody?

According to the EPA, waters are assessed as impaired when an applicable water quality standard is not being attained. Impaired waters require a total maximum daily load (TMDL) or alternative restoration plan to reduce pollutant loadings and restore the waterbody.

How can impaired waterbodies impact human health?

About 7.2 million, or just over 2 percent, of Americans get sick each year from diseases spread through water. While biological impairments are of major concern for human health, chemical pollutants are an ongoing threat and of increasing concern in industrialized nations.

Exposure to chemicals in drinking water can lead to a range of chronic diseases including:

  • Reproductive problems
  • Nervous system damage
  • Birth defects
  • Infertility
  • Cancer
  • Developmental issues

The water pollution that causes water bodies to become impaired comes from various sources, including point source and non-point sources, and is often the result of cumulative exposure to pollutants.  

In the United States, about 80 percent of water consumption goes towards agriculture. This exposes the water we drink to pollutants such as pesticides, metallic elements, nitrates, and fertilizers used in the industry. However, this is only one of the many industries all over the nation that expose our water with harsh chemicals, biological contaminants, and heavy metals. While we attempt to clear these pollutants before drinking water leaves treatment centers, water pollutants - both biological and chemical - continue to impact our health from the food we eat to the water we drink, swim, and bathe in.

Examples of Impaired Places in South Carolina

A recent analysis of the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC)’s 303(d) list of impaired water bodies in South Carolina as well as DHEC’s published Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) and DHEC’s listing of approved National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits in the state, conducted by SCELP staff, shows trends that indicate which counties have unexpectedly high levels of water pollution.

These include:

  • Greenville, Chester, and Lancaster counties indicate high levels of pollutants.
  • It also found York, Kershaw, Calhoun, Chesterfield, Darlington, Hampton, and Florence to also be at risk of having higher levels of water pollutants.

In particular, the Reedy River in Greenville  suffers from high levels of bacteria such as E. Coli and prevailing lead concentrations. It also suffers from non-point source pollution the culmination of the effects that the large textile industry that Greenville had throughout the 20th century, as well as current industrial activity.

SCELP's Role in Water Quality

Table Rock Lake in Pickens County

One of our main focuses at SCELP has always been water quality in both coastal and central waters within South Carolina. In 1992, we took on a case against Laidlaw whose incinerator had been discharging illegal amounts of mercury into the North Tyger River. In a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court, we prevailed, shutting down the incinerator that was responsible for more than one thousand violations of the Clean Water Act. This case also served as an end to the trend towards more difficult standing tests, which made it easier for special interest groups to establish standing in future environmental cases.

SCELP is currently involved in efforts to establish safer drinking water quality and water quality protection around the state. In addition, we are actively working on multiple cases involving dangerously dense, clustered septic systems both on the coast of and upstate of South Carolina.

With our current case involving a proposed RV park in northern Spartanburg County, we are working with homeowners to challenge a septic permit for an RV park, which would discharge two million gallons of effluent per year into the ground adjacent to conservation areas, putting water quality at risk in an ecologically valuable area.

Another current case challenges the water pollution from Arabella Farm wedding venue and event space in Sunset, SC. Recently the state Supreme Court dismissed Arabella’s appeal, meaning that the case will be heard in a lower court and a path to hold these polluters accountable remains.

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