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Linking Land Use to Water Quality in South Carolina
by: Calvin B Sawyer, S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program


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The Setting
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The Need For NEMO

State and local governments across the country are facing increased public pressure to address the consequences of urbanization and suburban sprawl. South Carolina is no exception. Like other states, South Carolina confers primary authority for land use decisions on local governments. Traditionally, local governments have used their zoning authority to regulate land use. In response to the passage of the 1994 Comprehensive Planning Enabling Act, local governments in South Carolina are revising their comprehensive land use plans and zoning laws. (SC Code of Laws, as amended, §6-29-310 et seq.). In the process, many local governments are using their planning and zoning authority as tools for managing growth and development in their communities.

The nature and extent of nonpoint source pollution is essentially a function of the way individuals use the land. Regulating these activities is a sensitive issue for the federal government since land use decisions are largely made at the local level and influenced by state policies (GAO 1999). The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has largely left the control of nonpoint source pollution to the states and localities. EPA reports that over one-third of the nation’s waters that were assessed by states are impaired. Nonpoint sources of water pollution have been identified as the primary reason for these continuing problems (GAO, 1999). Under pressure to meet national water quality goals, state and local governments must understand and deal with complicated and costly federal directives to control nonpoint source pollution. These include EPA regulations that require municipal officials and county governments to control contaminated runoff through local storm sewer systems, and to ensure that construction projects employ sufficient runoff prevention measures (Arrandale, 1998, 54).

For local decision-makers, the combined pressures of managing growth and controlling nonpoint source pollution are closely related. Problems with urban runoff increase as growth-related development results in more impervious surfaces, for example, more streets, parking lots, and rooftops. A 1994 study estimated that during a one-inch rainfall, the volume of water flowing off an acre of pavement is fifteen times the amount that a one acre meadow would shed. (GAO, 1999). As impervious surfaces within a watershed rise above 10 percent, local water bodies typically become measurably impacted. Beyond 25 percent, some level of damage is unavoidable. The most recent National Water Quality Inventory reports that runoff from urban areas is the leading source of pollution to estuaries and the third largest source of water quality damage to lakes (ICMA). A study comparing growth scenarios for a town in South Carolina found that runoff from a spread-out large-lot scenario was 43 percent higher than a compact “town” scenario. In addition, sediments, phosphorous, nitrogen and other pollutants leaving the “town” site were less (ICMA).

While public awareness campaigns have been moderately successful in educating the general public about how their behavior affects nonpoint source pollution, educating local officials on how their land use policies impact water quality, and getting them to consider these effects, is a more complex challenge. The goal of NEMO is to inform and educate local officials on how local land use decisions and polluted runoff are inextricably linked, in an effort to have nonpoint source pollution considered more when land use policy decisions are made.

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