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Aquatic Biology Section

Program Overview

The Aquatic Biology Section (ABS) is a diverse group of trained biology professionals who use a variety of biological and chemical parameters and biological methods to assess the streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries of South Carolina. The various biological programs collect data that are used to assess the biological conditions of the waters of the State and are used to support the development of Watershed Water Quality Assessment Reports, "The State of South Carolina Water Quality Assessment Pursuant to Section 305(b) 0f the Federal Clean Water Act", "The State of South Carolina's 303(d) List", "The Quality of the Environment in South Carolina", and various permitting and enforcement activities of the Agency.

The ABS staff provides data information and expertise to support programs in other State and Federal Agencies and routinely serves as members of regional, state and federal environmental committees and task forces. Additionally the ABS routinely is involved with educational and training programs for elementary, middle and high school students, colleges and universities, and public and civic organizations.

Nonpoint Source Monitoring Program
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The nonpoint source monitoring group researches, investigates and monitors nonpoint source (NPS)activity Statewide through a variety of efforts, including water quality and biological assessments.

The team monitors the effectiveness of best management practices (BMP's), in an effort to determine which practices yield the most effective reduction in NPS pollution. Most BMP's are implemented on agricultural and silvicultural lands, and 2 to 4 years of monitoring begins prior to implementation to determine before and after differences in water quality. 

The team works closely with the local Regions and the Bureau of Water Enforcement Section in complaint investigations and enforcement referrals. Professional judgement and biological assessments are utilized to determine cause and degree of impact to watersheds effected by NPS pollution and recommend any needed enforcement action.

The NPS team also focuses on the State's Section 303(d) List, list of impaired water bodies, to address watersheds deemed impaired by nonpoint sources. Short-term water quality and/or biological assessments are conducted on impaired streams to determine cause, severity of impact, and acquire further data for TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) development.

Fish Monitoring Program

The Aquatic Biology Section collects fish from South Carolina lakes, streams, rivers, and estuaries to monitor the levels of contaminants in fish tissue. The data is used picture of fish in neteach year to calculate consumption rates for the South Carolina Fish Consumption Advisory. The Fish Tissue Monitoring Program has made substantial progress since it began in the 1970's. Fisheries staff now collect over 150 sites and more than 1800 fish each year statewide.

Fisheries staff assist other program areas within the agency and work cooperatively with other state and federal agencies on fisheries related issues. In 2000, additional staff and equipment will further expand the capabilities of the fisheries program to include Index Of Biological Integrity sampling to compliment the efforts of the macroinvertebrate group.

Macroinvertebrate Program

Aquatic macroinvertebrates are insects and other invertebrates associated with streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries. Aquatic macroinvertebrate communities can be useful indicators of water quality because they respond to integrated stresses over time, and reflect fluctuating environmental conditions. Community response to various pollutants (e.g. organic, toxic and sediments) may be assessed through interpretation of diversity, known organism tolerances and, in some cases, relative abundance and feeding behavior types.

Regional ambient monitoring generates data that represent the general biological condition of state waters that may be subject to a variety of point and non-point source impacts. The Aquatic Biology Section uses this data to support a variety of state and federal programs. Additionally, special macroinvertebrate studies are conducted at a variety of sites to evaluate specific potential impacts to the aquatic environment.

Phycology Program

Phycology is the branch of biology concerning the study of algae. Algae are found in a wide variety of habitats on land and in water, but they are mostly aquatic. Phytoplankton, among the primary producers of aquatic ecosystems, are the microscopic and macroscopic algae that live free-floating and suspended in bodies of water. Phytoplankton strongly influence such aspects of water quality as dissolved oxygen, pH, clarity, color, taste, and odor. These factors, therefore, make phytoplankton an integral part of overall water quality. Due to their short life cycles, phytoplankton respond quickly to environmental changes, so the phytoplankton community present in a waterbody can also provide valuable information about water quality.

The Aquatic Biology Section at SCDHEC uses phytoplankton as one means of making biological assessments of water quality in lakes and ponds. Phytoplankton are generally more indicative of water quality in lakes and ponds rather than in flowing water. Water quality assessments using phytoplankton can be made by determining the relative numbers and types of phytoplankton in a waterbody. Some types of phytoplankton are useful indicators of specific aspects of water quality and may confirm the presence of a particular type of pollutant.

For example, certain species of phytoplankton are known to flourish in highly eutrophic (nutrient-enriched) waters and are indicators of such conditions. The presence or absence of some types of phytoplankton can also provide information about organic content, ion concentration, pH range, turbidity, and temperature in a waterbody.

A balanced, indigenous phytoplankton community is essential for maintaining a healthy aquatic environment. Excessive productivity or predominance by pollution tolerant types of phytoplankton may result in unbalanced biological conditions in a waterbody. With unbalanced biological conditions, some phytoplankton are capable of producing nuisance blooms in the form of highly turbid water, floating algal mats, or surface scums. Offensive tastes and odors may develop from some algal blooms, thereby adversely affecting a water resource for its various uses. Anoxic conditions which lead to the death of aquatic life (e.g. fish) can also result from excessive algal blooms. Toxic conditions resulting in animal deaths and human illness can be created by a few phytoplankton species.

The Aquatic Biology Section also uses chlorophyll a concentration as a water quality assessment tool. Chlorophyll a determination provides a good estimate of the amount of algal biomass (amount of living algal material) in a waterbody. Chlorophyll a concentration is a useful measure of the trophic status of a waterbody. Generally, higher chlorophyll a concentrations are observed in more eutrophic waters. The objectives for monitoring chlorophyll a are to determine if there are trends in chlorophyll a concentration in the waters of interest and to identify areas where excessive algal productivity may degrade water quality.

The primary objective of the ambient phytoplankton and chlorophyll a monitoring program is to provide a baseline of biological data for observing any water quality trends in South Carolina. Intensive water quality studies are also conducted to provide more complete phytoplankton and chlorophyll a data on waterbodies of special interest. Phytoplankton analyses are performed on samples submitted by request (e.g. inquiry by public) or by the occurrence of some specific water quality problem (e.g. taste/odor in drinking water supply) . Additionally, phytoplankton samples are routinely submitted in fish kill investigations to determine if excessive algal growth was a factor.

Related Links

Surface Water Monitoring
South Carolina Fish Advisories
Nonpoint Source Education Page
303(d) List of Impaired Water Bodies
305(b) Report - South Carolina Water Quality Assessment
EPA -Science and Ecosystem Support Division - Ecological Support Branch
EPA- Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds Publications
EPA - Office of Science and Technology Publications Laws and Regulations

Federal Clean Water Act
SC Pollution Control Act


James Glover, Ph.D., Section Manager, 803-898-4081

Bureau of Water . Phone: (803) 898-4300 . Fax: (803) 898-3795 . Contact Us