Waccamaw Riverkeeper

serving the rivers in the Winyah Bay Watershed

About the Waccamaw River

The beautiful blackwater Waccamaw has its headwaters in the Lake Waccamaw area of North Carolina. Several extensive wetlands around the lake, most notably the Green Swamp, contribute water to streams flowing into the river. This capillary-like network is ideal for canoeing and kayaking and provides habitat for a collection of diverse and rare flora and fauna.

pileated woodpecker on the Waccamaw River
Pileated Woodpecker
photo: Steve Berkowitz

Conway, originally established as Kingston-on-the-Waccamaw in 1735, claims the river as a major part of its history due to its early dependence on river commerce. Conway features the river with an attractive riverwalk, a municipal boat landing, a bed and breakfast inn, and a riverside restaurant.

Landsat Satellite image of the Waccamaw River
Landsat Satellite image of the
Waccamaw River

The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway joins the Waccamaw near Bucksport and shares the river channel to Winyah Bay in the historic port city of Georgetown. As the river flows closer to the ocean it forms the long mass of coastal land known as the Waccamaw Neck from the town of Murrells Inlet to Winyah Bay. Along the “Neck” the river moves straighter and more swiftly past abandoned rice fields, old plantation homes, Sandy Island and Brookgreen Gardens. The Pee Dee River joins the Waccamaw just before it empties into Winyah Bay. Having traveled more than 140 miles from its headwaters to the sea, the Waccamaw drains an area of 1110 square miles of coastal plain in the two states. It is tidal for about 40 miles upstream from Winyah Bay.

The river is home to a collection of diverse and rare flora and fauna. Most notably, the American Black Bear makes its home along the Waccamaw and travels its intra-Carolina corridors. Of our American bears the Black Bear is the smallest. Although they can be dangerous, they are the least threat to humans. As our suburbs spread into the areas where wildlife roam free, more and more the black bear’s travel patterns are being encroached upon.

Several plants on the South Carolina list of rare, threatened or endangered species are found within the Waccamaw near where it crosses SC Highway 9. Fimbristylis perpusilla (dwarf fimbry), Hemicarpha micrantha (common hemicarpha) and Echinodorus tenellus var. parvulus (little burhead) are tiny annuals that reproduce only following long periods of drought. Sabatia kennedyana (Plymouth gentian) and Coreopsis rosea (pink tickseed) are perennials that inhabit more upland sites in the area. In savanna-like areas including the Green Swamp and around the edges of Carolina Bays there are also many species of interesting carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, sundews and pitcher plants.

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
photo: Steve Berkowitz

The Waccamaw River has played a major role in the history of the region through which it flows, and continues to play a role in the lives of many North and South Carolinians. It supports recreational fishing and other water sports, provides drinking water, is a venue for tourism and camping, and enhances the lives of those who touch it through its beauty and serenity.

Several significant efforts have succeeded in designating and/or preserving important lands along the Waccamaw. The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, centered around Sandy Island in Georgetown County, was established in 1998 “to protect diverse habitat components within a unique and threatened coastal river ecosystem.” The South Carolina Heritage Trust Program has preserved land along the Waccamaw corridor in the area just below the North Carolina border. Lake Waccamaw has been designated as “Outstanding Resource Waters” and the North Carolina Nature Conservancy protects a portion of the Green Swamp.

Its Characteristics

On cloudy days, especially where the water is more than a few feet deep, the Waccamaw appears quite dark and opaque, justifying its blackwater designation. However, on sunny days, the shallows take on a distinct orange or tea-colored appearance. This is due to tannins and other pigments that have leached out of vegetation growing in the extensive wetlands adjoining the river.

yellow-bellied slider turtle on the Waccamaw River
Yellow-bellied Slider
photo: Steve Berkowitz

The Waccamaw, like other blackwater rivers, is naturally acidic (has low pH) and naturally low in dissolved oxygen (DO). Fish, crayfish, mussels, insect larvae and other aquatic organisms breathe through gills and need DO levels sufficient for survival.

For most waters, a DO level of 5 milligrams per liter (mg/l) is considered necessary to maintain aquatic life. The Waccamaw River naturally has DO levels of less than 5 mg/l, especially during the warmer months, and therefore has a South Carolina-established DO standard of 4 mg/l. The riverine animals clearly can survive these low DO levels, as they must have done for thousands of years, but there is often little DO available to enable bacteria to break down human-introduced materials, including organic compounds in wastewater, sewage, and fertilizers.

Its Problems

cypress knees on the Waccamaw River
Cypress Knees
photo: Steve Berkowitz

Since 1994 there has been a fish-consumption advisory for the Waccamaw, as well as the Little Pee Dee, the Great Pee Dee, the Lynches, the Sampit, the Black Rivers, as well as the Intracoastal Waterway in the greater watershed. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (S.C. DHEC) issued the advisory after the detection of high levels of mercury in several fish species. The source of the mercury is unclear; some percentage may occur naturally and some may be deposited from the air as a result of fossil fuel burning.

Parts of the river are unsuitable for swimming due to high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. This problem is exacerbated during periods of low water flow.

The AIWW, which gets its water from the Waccamaw and Little Pee Dee Rivers, provides drinking water for Myrtle Beach and parts of Horry County.

The bulk of the land comprising the Waccamaw River watershed is forest or forested wetland. Roughly equal portions (6-7%) have been converted to agricultural and urban uses, the latter consisting mostly of Conway and Georgetown. However, the area is experiencing tremendous population growth along with the resulting infrastructure development. The percentage of watershed land remaining in a relatively undisturbed condition is declining.

Existing threats to the health of the river include pollution from point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, pollution from non-point sources, such as storm water runoff containing oil, fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes and runoff of sediment due to soil erosion resulting from development. Losses of wetlands, and their natural ability to remove pollutants, exacerbate these problems.

Another threat is runoff of sediment from soil erosion due to development. Many of these problems are exacerbated by the loss of wetlands that provide natural pollution removal. Additionally, years of timber management techniques such as ditching and draining have seriously diminished the sponge-like abilities of our swamps and wetlands to hold and slowly release rain and floodwaters. This rapid release of water causes more drastic swings in the river’s flow and makes the river more prone to periods of flooding and to very low flow. Replenishment of the underlying Cretaceous aquifers is affected by wetlands drainage by agricultural as well as timber interests. Population growth has greatly increased the withdrawal from the aquifers.

South Carolina DHEC, USGS, and Dr. Susan Libes of Coastal Carolina University have documented the following indicators over several years of study. More studies are needed for additional data for definitive conclusions:

A team of researchers, led by Dr. Stan Riggs from East Carolina University, recently completed a report, The Waccamaw Drainage System: Geology and Dynamics of a Coastal Wetland, Southeastern North Carolina, for the NC Division of Water Resources. This five-year study is an excellent source of knowledge on the Waccamaw watershed. Of the recommendations they have listed, the Winyah Rivers Foundation’s Waccamaw Riverkeeper Program will address and ⁄ or support work on the following issues:

If current poor water quality conditions are to be improved and further degradation is to be prevented, citizen activists must become involved.

The Waccamaw River watershed is just one of the rivers we watch over. It's a watershed with a captivating story as told through our Waccamaw River Storybook.

Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® | Center for Marine and Wetland Studies | Coastal Carolina University
P.O. Box 261954 (290 Allied Drive) | Conway, SC 29528-6054 | (843) 349-4007 | Riverkeeper@winyahrivers.org
Winyah Rivers Foundation is a U.S. registered 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit charity.

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