November 8, 2010

Testing water quality of Ocracoke’s Silver Lake harbor is underway


"Meet at Jack’s Store at 7:30 a.m.," were the directives for a cloudless morning in late September on Ocracoke Island. At the dock behind what was once Jack's Store, now the Waterman’s Exhibit and office for the Ocracoke Foundation, a group of five Ocracokers converged, some still yawning with coffee cups in hand.

This was the second of several testing days scheduled to learn as much as possible about the quality of the waters of Ocracoke’s beautiful and beloved harbor, Silver Lake.

 Water is the mainstay of life at Ocracoke. Be it ocean, sound, or harbor, it permeates every aspect of island life, providing the means for transportation, seafood, recreation, and jobs relating to fishing and tourism. Silver Lake Harbor, or the Creek, as it is known to many locals, is the focal point of the village, where islanders and tourists converge to work, shop, dine, and chat.

Many of us recall the days when we plunged off the dock to swim in the harbor, but those days are long gone. Silver Lake Harbor water is currently classified by the North Carolina Division of Water Quality in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as "SC" --acceptable for secondary recreation use. This means that fishing, boating, and, other activities involving minimal skin contact are acceptable usage.

Very little official testing of the harbor has been done in recent years, however, and there are concerns about pollution from the many boats that cruise in and out of the harbor, the "live-aboards," where people stay full-time on their boats, oil from the road, pesticides, and runoff from septic tanks, particularly during and after storms.

The testing currently underway was being done at the request of the Ocracoke Foundation and facilitated by Mac Gibbs, the county extension director for the Hyde County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension and coordinator for North Carolina State University programming in Hyde County. 

They want more accurate information about the harbor’s water quality in order to determine the best way to set up much needed public restrooms in the village, install BMPs (Best Management Practices) at drain sites along the harbor, decide if a dedicated public boat pump-out station is needed, and to determine what to do about standing water --particularly stormwater-- in the roads that border the harbor.

 The tests are being overseen by three professors from NCSU -- Drs. Michael Hoover, Sushama Pradhan, and Alexandria Graves, one of whom, Dr Graves, was here that day. Some of the results, such as water temperature and acidity, were determined on the boat where the water was collected. Other tests were set up in Jennifer Garrish’s science room at Ocracoke School.

The ultimate goal, as described by Robin Mann of the Ocracoke Foundation, is "to improve the water quality of Silver Lake through stormwater and wastewater improvements and facilitate a village-wide restroom plan for the traveling public that is both environmentally friendly and blends with the historic village architecture."

The immediate goal is to identify and document various levels of acidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and pollution, and then develop the best management plan possible for the harbor and village waters.

 The National Park Service does its own testing on waters within the parameters of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and the state has, in the past, used their ferry system to conduct water tests in Pamlico Sound.

Jennifer Garrish, Ocracoke School’s science teacher, learned how to do water sampling in the ‘90s when she worked for the state. She has done testing in Pamlico Sound before off the Park Service docks near the ferry and has shown her students how to examine water samples with a microscope, so as to search for phytoplankton and "whatever else might be living in there." She has also done some testing on her own in Silver Lake Harbor and says that earlier she found no red flags to cause concern. She is not able to run all the tests currently being conducted.

On this particular September morning, a tall lanky young man by the name of Jeff Bullard, a research assistant from the Soil Science Department at NCSU, brought the equipment needed for the tests and everyone climbed into the skiff tied up at the dock.

Ocracoke commercial fisherman Gene Ballance steered the skiff, using a GPS to guide him to a spot in front of the Anchorage Inn. This is one of the three sites in Silver Lake that has been designated as a test site.

It is important to replicate the tests exactly the same way in the same spot each time. Two water samples were taken, one from the surface and one near the bottom. Beverly Meeker recorded the data as Tom Payne and Rob Dennis collected and tested water samples. Among the qualities they were testing for were water temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and oxygen production potential.

Sample bottles of water were stored in a cooler to take back to Ocracoke School, where other volunteers were helping set up a laboratory in the science room. After testing three sites in Silver Lake, the crew docked the boat and drove to two stormwater sites in marshy areas in the village and replicated the tests there.

Back in the lab, Alex Graves of NCSU was working with Jennifer Garrish and Rita Thiel, both of whom were volunteering for the project, to set up a membrane filtration system so that they could test the water for total coliform bacteria. Coliforms are bacteria that live in the intestine of warm-blooded mammals, including humans. Their presence, harmless in itself, would indicate that contamination exists. They would use Petri dishes to grow the cultures.

Graves said that the scientists are most concerned when they see elevated counts or large numbers of these microbes.

There's another sentence that reads "Their presence, harmless in itself, would indicate that contamination exists".  This is true, but I think it is important to note that we are most concerned when we see elevated counts or large numbers of these microbes. 
“I know we should never say never, but I will dare to do so” she explained.  “We will never sample a body of water and not detect coliforms, unless you rid the world of wildlife and pets.”

Graves explained that "when you are equipped with the proper knowledge, you know how to address it (the problem).”

She says that her part is source tracking of bacteria such as E. coli to see if it exists in a water sample, and where it comes from. The evaluation will be based on all the samplings, and the study will examine the peaks and lows and take a cumulative look at all the information obtained.

 Rita Thiel, fourth grade teacher at Ocracoke School, finds it important to volunteer her time to the project because "If there are problem areas in Ocracoke, we should be made aware of it. If there are septic issues, we need to find ways to improve them and use better water management."

 The professors hope to have the results of the testing early in 2011, after all the data is examined and analyzed. At that time workshops will be set up for the community to decide on a plan of action, so that Ocracoke's precious waters can be managed in the best possible way.

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