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Introduction to USGS Water Science in South Carolina

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SC Water Science Center Director Eric W. Strom discusses USGS water science programs in South Carolina, as interviewed by SC Public Radio "Your Day" host, Donna London.




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[Intro audio] Welcome to the USGS South Carolina Water Science podcast. Water Science for a Changing World. Today on our program, a recent interview with Eric Strom, Director of the South Carolina Water Science Center. Stand by for programming.

Donna London: We are at the South Carolina Water Resources Conference in North Charleston South Carolina and I am talking with Eric Strom and he is Director of the U.S. Geological Service South Carolina Water Science Center. Eric, thanks for joining us this afternoon.

Eric Strom: My pleasure.

Donna London: Did I get that long stream of words correct there.

Eric Strom: Almost, U.S. Geological Survey.

Donna London: O.K. that's right, the Survey. Well I want to thank you for sitting down with us this afternoon and helping us better understand what we are doing in South Carolina to ensure that we are monitoring and that we got the information that we need to have. Can you give us an overview of where we stand in South Carolina in terms of collecting data?

Eric Strom: Sure. In South Carolina we have three major houses so to speak in the USGS. And one of those, as you mentioned, in data collection, hydrologic monitoring we call it. And what we do is we gage the stream flow and discharge in the State at one-hundred and sixty-seven sites in near real-time. And we transmit that information via satellite, you can look at it on your computer on the web, and we transmit in half the instances about once every hour. So we also transmit in near real time more than forty real-time water-quality sites as well. So we are looking at the water-quality and the discharge in the streams as well as ground-water levels throughout the State.

Donna London: And what are we to learn from this type of information?

Eric Strom: Well this type of information is very important to a number of parties. Some people use the information for regulation, some people use it for discharge, recreationists use it to look at stage on a river or for when it is best to go kayaking for instance. Fishermen use it from day to day as well. But really it serves the public in a very long-term fashion and we can look at trends. We can look at statistics on stream flow. Is stream flow increasing? Is stream flow decreasing? As we have change in climate in the future those types of question are going to be very important and they are going to be based on long-term monitoring so having the data, the record to prove what is going on to serve the regulators, is going to be quite important.

Donna London: Can you help us understand how the aquifers in South Carolina have changed?

Eric Strom: Well, we as I mentioned before we do some limited monitoring of about seventeen aquifers in real-time. The State actually monitors a lot more sites in non real-time techniques but get a pretty good coverage there. That is a tough question, there is not a general statement that I can make probably that would fit that. In some areas there are declines going on and big ones, particularly some areas around the coast. There are other areas where we are not seeing really big changes in trends at all, and yet in others that are very much influenced by the drought. And are showing us responses in regard to that drought.

Donna London: Right. Now all along the coast of course we are growing in leaps and bounds like we never have in the past. Can you give us some indication from your work, what is going on there in terms of the salt-water primarily due to the high development.

Eric Strom: I think you are referring down to the southern part of the State, Hilton Head area. Well, in the past in the natural state before there was development, the aquifers had a lot of fresh water in them and discharged actually fresh water into the ocean. Through development of the aquifers both locally and in nearby municipalities like Savannah, the heads or the water levels in those aquifers have dropped, and as a result that fresh water discharge is no longer occurring and there's been a reversal– actually salt-water has begun to come into the aquifer system.

Donna London: Now in terms of mercury, I know that is something that you have been spending quite a bit of time on, in terms of your research.

Eric Strom: That is correct. There is a problem with methylation of mercury, which is the form that allows it to be taken up by fish and other aquatic biota, and methylation of mercury is a real problem, apparently south of the fall-line here in our State. And, the conventional wisdom is that this is because we have black-water streams that are just right for these kinds of conditions that allow this change to happen to the mercury, the elemental form. But we have had instances of watersheds side by side, specifically the Edisto and Congaree where we have those same conditions going on and yet in one of those basins we have a severe mercury problem or I should say a mercury problem in fish and in another not nearly so. Understanding the process that is making that happen between these two adjacent basins is fundamental to our understanding of how mercury methylates and we suspect that there is a hydrologic mechanism there that we are only just now beginning to understand. And hopefully that knowledge will transfer along the entire Atlantic coast.

Donna London: Now earlier today I was talking with someone who was talking about the containment of contaminants in the water systems in South Carolina and the water streams in South Carolina. I understand that this is something that you have been working on specific to South Carolina where I believe that he was talking about in a general way. Tell us what is going on there and particularly with the antibiotics and the other forms of medications that are surfacing.

Eric Strom: O.K. you are talking about what we refer to I believe as emerging contaminants. There are a whole suite of things that fall under that category. Things like personal health care products, pharmaceuticals, hormones, caffeine, the things that we drink in our coffee that are making it into the natural system. Now, they have probably always been doing that but we have never been able to measure it before. We just did not have the analytical techniques that would allow us to measure things that minutely. So we have in recent years developed those techniques and now we see these kinds of products. That is not to say that they are in toxic levels to human beings, but they are there and they are ubiquitous, they are found everywhere. So now that they have emerged, if you will, the next logical question is so what? What happens to these things? Do they build up in the environment? Do they adversely effect aquatic biota like fish? What next, what is the fate and the transport of these emerging contaminants? And specifically that is what we are working on here in South Carolina, we have a very good analytical lab to address those kinds of issues.

Donna London: That reminds me how much does the U.S. Geological Survey partner with other researchers around the State and around the country.

Eric Strom: Well this is what is so unique, I think, about the water discipline here in South Carolina. We rely completely on partnerships. In other words, I cannot go out and simply spend a dollar on something that I what to spend it on. I must find at least a matching dollar from a State partner or a local partner in order to even spend my dollar. So, Congress set that business model up over one-hundred years ago I believe, and it keeps us very relevant to the State's needs. If we are not doing something that is of interest to the State, the State is not going to partner with us and match the money and I will not be able to do the work. So, we rely exclusively on partnerships and I have actually over fifty partners in South Carolina that we do science with.

Donna London: So this is with agencies, also research universities?

Eric Strom: Yes, we work with State agencies, we work collaboratively with Universities, we work with actually many industries and utilities as well.

Donna London: I know we are always curious to find out to what is going to happen next. How do we get better data for predictive abilities, capabilities for our hurricane prediction models?

Eric Strom: Well, one thing that we are doing now is called a storm-surge sensor deployment. We actually have these little storm-surge sensors, and prior to a hurricane we go out and we strap them on many different structures, and if you have ever seen the movie Twister where they try to get that ToTo unit right in front of the tornado so they can pick up the sensory data, that is what we are trying to do. Twenty-four hours in advance of a hurricane we are trying to nail where we think it will come ashore, we put out an array of instrumentation, and then after the storm we go back and retrieve it and using information like that which feeds other models, SLOSH models for storm inundation, is one way we are trying to get better at understanding the effects of a hurricane on the coastline.

Donna London: That is very helpful I believe for us to know and somewhat reassuring that we are having more data that is going to help us to better predict the hurricanes. Now I have to ask you, it sounds like that everything that we have talked about is hard science. You are a group of scientists, do you ever get involved in advocating or in working on policy.

Eric Strom: No we don't. Actually, we exclusively collect the data and information and try to provide the understanding of that data and information to help policy makers craft those policies and make those decisions. But we ourselves do not get involved in that aspect of decision making. In fact we really don't even make recommendations. We want the information that we collect to be seen a simply unbiased, good scientific data to be used by all parties in any potential conflict.

Donna London: Right, and it is amazing what is available from USGS in terms of the mapping as well as all of the data that you collect there and we are quite grateful for that.

Eric Strom: Well, thank you very much.

 Donna London: I have been speaking with Mr. Eric Strom he is with the USGS South Carolina Water Science Center, for the Jim Self Center on the Future, I am Donna London.

Dianna Daniels: Thank you Donna. There are links to more information on the South Carolina Water Science Center and to other resources mentioned on our program at

 [Close Audio]: For more information on this program visit us on the web at Water Science for a changing world is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey and the South Carolina Water Science Center. Thank you for listening.

*Interview rebroadcast with permission from the Jim Self Center on the Future.

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