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NOAA’s National Centerfor Coastal Environmental Healthand BiomolecularResearch


Bluffton, South Carolina: A Small Town with a Big Looking Glass

Palmetto Bluff

This picturesque portion of Palmetto Bluff, the 56-square-mile tract that Bluffton annexed back in 1998, reveals why the peaceful little town is fiercely protective of its beloved May River.

For nearly a decade, the National Ocean Service has partnered with the historic town of Bluffton, South Carolina, to protect its water quality in some innovative ways. Back in 1998, the tiny town made a big change to save its beloved May River from the polluting effects of burgeoning development around highway 278, the road to popular Hilton Head and other South Carolina Sea Islands.

A Big Change for a Small Town

In a decision to conserve its beauty and way of life, the Bluffton town council annexed Palmetto Bluff, a large tract adjacent to the May River. As a result, Bluffton grew to 56 times its original size.
“As a community, Bluffton has a passion for protecting our natural resources,” says Jeff NcNesby, director of the town’s Division of Environmental Protection.

Bluffton, established in 1825, has always relied on the May River. Oyster harvesting is one way that many people here make their livings. At the Bluffton Oyster Company, the ladies still shuck the oysters by hand.

The people of Bluffton knew that the key to maintaining their town’s identity – not to mention their home values – was to protect water quality in the May. So in 2000, the town council asked experts from across the state to help it undertake a baseline study of the river.

NOAA Gets Involved

Bluffton outreach tool

That is how Geoff Scott, PhD, director of NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston, South Carolina, came to chair, and helped to form, the Bluffton Technical Advisory Committee. The Center conducts research to measure coastal ecosystem health. Its field studies help evaluate and predict the controlling factors of natural and human influences in marine and estuarine habitats, including rivers.
Committee members – including the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR), South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, U.S. Geological Survey, University of South Carolina, Clemson University, and nonprofit organizations – made numerous recommendations on how to proceed. The resulting three-year study characterized the May’s biological, chemical, and physical parameters.

An Innovative Ordinance

Forward-thinking Bluffton, however, did not want to wait until it had proof of a problem. So Dr. Scott helped develop a ground-breaking stormwater ordinance and stormwater-management design manual that passed in May 2007. The ordinance and manual include aggressive construction site inspections, require permeable parking spaces in both commercial and multi-family residential developments, and specify that stormwater runoff filter through to the groundwater table.

Bluffton outreach tool

The ordinance’s most innovative provision requires developers to monitor sediments (turbidity) leaving construction sites during construction, to monitor fecal coliform bacteria, total phosphorus, and total nitrogen for three years post-construction. Developers must then report their findings to the town.

In the meantime, Dr. Scott and the committee had advised the town to monitor water quality at several locations in the May River. Bluffton conducted a quarterly sampling study in 2005-06, followed by a more comprehensive one in 2007-08. The South Carolina DNR is now analyzing these data, together with those from the baseline study, to describe the May River’s recent health.

The town anxiously anticipates the results, expected by early fall, because initial findings indicate elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria (FCB) in the headwaters of the May.

Bluffton’s Battle Cry

When word got around of these initial results, peaceful but protective Bluffton decided to “declare war on FCB” in the May River, McNesby says.

The people peered again through their far-sighted looking glass and asked, “What can we do now to bring the May River back to full health?”

map showing location of Bluffton

When the historic town of Bluffton, South Carolina, found itself hemmed in by nonstop construction along Highway 278 to popular Hilton Head Island, the residents did something big to conserve water quality in the nearby May River – the town's lifeblood for nearly two centuries.