The Dirty Myrtle: More than meets the eye

Genevieve Guerry is a student in the Masters in Coastal and Ocean Policy program. She graduated from the University of South Carolina at Columbia in 2015 with a B.S in Marine Science with an emphasis in Biology. As the daughter of South Carolina natives, she spent several summers in the low country inspiring an interest in water quality and conservation. 

A hot summer’s day in July and once again the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach is packed from the parking lots to the water line. As one of America’s top beaches, Myrtle Beach attracts everyone and everything. 

The area has a nickname, "Dirty Myrtle"  which refers to anything between a type of drink to a mud run.  But over the last decade, the nickname's meaning has slipped away from local leaders control over marketing towards the numerous swimming advisories that warn visitors of the poor water quality along the beach. 

South Carolina is the 3rd worst state for beach water quality in the country. Over the last few years  the most popular beaches in the area have had increasing bacteria levels.

Swimming advisories indicate that bacteria in the water such as, fecal coliform, are too high for the public to swim or consume fish caught in that area. Symptoms of swimming related illness  range from mild to severe including, ear infection, skin rashes and diarrheal.  The young and the elderly are at greatest risk of illness from high bacterial levels in swimming water. 

Science shows that harmful bacteria come from storm water runoff. 

Storm water outfalls are a common occurrence on the Grand Strand and surrounding beaches. They carry the storm water from the city onto the beach and into the ocean. While there are some signs near these outfalls warning of the dangers of them they are small and hard to read. Often the signs are pointed in the opposite direction of beach goers. 

The picture above by Genevieve shows beach goers sitting close to a storm water outfall.  The signs notifying visitors of potential risks is small and faces away from beach access points.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) monitors bacteria levels in the Myrtle Beach Area as a part of the Beach Act.   Legislators established The Beach Act in 2000 as an amendment of the Clean Water Act.  The Beach Act mandates that coastal states have a beach notification system for public safety in regards to coastal recreational waters. DHEC is also responsible for issuing a statement to local news outlets of an advisory and posting signs on the beach effected.

Since 2007, DHEC has implemented long term advisories for Myrtle Beach. 

DHEC illustration depicting the meaning of a long-term swim advisory. 

While swimming advisories may appear as a small issue it sheds light on the problems of political corruption in Myrtle Beach such as, the Chamber of Commerce. 

There is a power struggle between the residents of the area and local leaders.  The Chamber of Commerce is trying to bring more out of state tourists with incentives like the penny tax and business deals with foreign corporations particularly with China.  However, the local community consider these shady business deals of Mayor John Rhodes and Chamber of Commerce President, Brad Dean.  Former Governor Nikki Haley fought against the Penny Tax through veto power to protect local interests, but she lost the fight as the bill was ultimately passed in the house. in their corner as the Penny Tax went to the state where it was vetoed by Nikki but ultimately passed by the house.   

Beach vacations are a favorite American pastime and the last thing vacationers want to worry about is whether the very beach they came to visit is going to make them sick. 

At the end of the day each summer season offers South Carolina billions of dollars. The value of business is more important than public safety in the eyes of the Chamber of Commerce even though their statement is Promote, Protect and Improve.  

If Myrtle Beach wants to rid itself of the dirty nickname they must improve their water. Until then, DHEC must create a better system of warning beachgoers of potential threats in beach waters. If the trends continue in Myrtle Beach the town could lose the very tourism dollars they are trying to draw in. 


  1. Growing up and working along the Jersey Shore, I can relate to the phenomena of beach closures and the value of summer tourism. But to play the devil's advocate, I would argue that many of the tourists local towns rely on for economic purposes are not informed about water quality issues when the arise. Being a historically popular vacation spot, Myrtle Beach has positive reputation across the country that far outweighs the negative aspects. People aren't going to stop going there. Furthermore, added signage and warnings will only bring more negative attention. Therefore I can understand The Chamber of Commerce trying to keep water quality issues out of the public eye while doing the bare minimum to satisfy the regulations. One would think that opposition would then have to come from the local community, but then again, they depend on tourists for a way of life. It would be counterintuitive for locals to openly draw attention to water quality issues as it could hurt the economy. Perhaps another way to attack this issue is to have more strict development regulations and promote green infrastructure that can help combat stormwater runoff.

  2. I find this topic particularly interesting because it is similar to what I am focusing on for my capstone. While this focuses on public health in the dimension of public beach notices, I am focusing on public health in the dimension of shellfishing closures. The issues of responsibility and accountability are brought to mind for both topics. I believe that it is the responsibility of the local and state government to keep public safety in mind when it comes to stormwater runoff, mitigation, and signage. Many visiting vacationers are unaware of these issues. While they should be adequately informed, being aware of the risks associated with the place you are visiting is also important. I believe that spreading awareness and education concerning this issue is paramount to its solution. It would be in the best economic interests for the local governments to further inform people and work towards a solution rather than hide the issue to continue to try and draw more people in. In my opinion, Dirty Myrtle has enough of a reputation already that people will find out about the water quality issues regardless. The local government has the opportunity to be accountable and go about it the right way so that they not only improve the quality of their beaches, but secure the trust and business of vacationers who come here to enjoy beaches that are clean, but also are run by authorities that are transparent, continually working to improve water quality, and are committed to securing public health.

  3. As development and population density increases along our coasts, threatened water quality and polluted storm water runoff is a problem that every coastal city should prepare to face. It sounds like in the case of Dirty Myrtle, they are already at that point. Apparently, city council members and local governance has chosen the "ban the models" approach to mitigation, and continued with marketing and tourism business as usual. This doesn't necessarily surprise me, since the billions of dollars that tourism brings in annually easily overshadows the (so far) isolated cases of environmental and public health concerns stemming from polluted runoff, but nonetheless, I certainly agree that priorities should shift if Myrtle wants to clean up its reputation. Getting out in front of the issue with educational efforts, implementing greener infrastructure, and allocating way more than <1% of the penny tax revenue toward capital improvement projects like storm water BMPs would be a good start. I an curious to know how China fits in to all of this. Is it significant that the City has business deals with foreign corporations? Are the foreign corporations influencing the water quality problems or impeding the public's access to DHEC information on swimming advisories and closures, or is it simply an example of potentially "shady" legislative practices?

  4. Initially, I was really surprised to find out that Myrtle Beach has a big problem with beach advisories and water pollution. I assumed the area had low levels of water pollution because the main attraction to Myrtle Beach is the beach. When I take my family on a vacation to the beach, especially somewhere in the United States, I expect the water to be clean enough that we won’t get sick. I also expect the local government to inform visitors and residents when the water is not safe for swimming. I agree with Chris that more swim advisories would incur negative attention and negatively impact the tourism industry, but shouldn’t that be incentive for the local government to take care of the pollution problem? Gigi pointed out that beach tourism is a billion dollar industry, but I doubt it will remain a huge industry if tourists become ill on a regular basis. Like Hayley mentioned at the end of her comment, I’m really curious about China’s role in this problem. How is China influencing Myrtle Beach’s storm water management? How could China be more important than the billion-dollar tourist industry? I’m interested to hear more about this topic.

  5. Caitlin LashbrookMarch 2, 2017 at 12:08 PM

    All throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I remember classmates bragging about their upcoming spring break or summer trips to Myrtle Beach. It was, and likely still is, a popular vacation spot where I am from. After moving down to Wilmington and learning about the various issues of Myrtle Beach, its a wonder why people still vacation there, especially if it has the potential of causing bacterial illnesses. While it seems that Myrtle Beach needs to find new ways to deal with their stormwater rather than large outflow pipes, the issue of human health awareness should be addressed. Ultimately they should invest in BMPs for already developed areas, and fix zoning requirements for future development. In the meantime though, tourists should be made aware of the health risks at hand. Maybe they should start attacking this issue on a two-fold scale. Look into allocating already existing taxes and funds to stormwater retrofits, while improving their health hazard communications (signage at beach accesses, different colored flags at lifeguard stands for water quality like they do for rip currents). It is completely understandable why the Chamber of Commerce would not want to draw attention to this issue, but if the improved health hazard signs were seen and framed as a temporary solution, with long term infrastructure solutions for stormwater, maybe that would gain more support. I'm very interested to hear more about this and the shady politics involved.

  6. As people continue to move to the coast, the quality of water will continue to be threatened. I found it interesting how the signs at Myrtle Beach are so small and difficult to read from far away. Signs that communicate important information to the public, such as water quality, should be large enough so that they are not passed by without being read. Personally, I walk past small signage without reading because it does not grab my attention. If I am on vacation at the beach, I would expect to have large signs informing me to be careful swimming due to poor water quality. The public needs to be informed on these issues and Myrtle Beach needs to do a better job informing them. This is only a small step towards a bigger issue. Myrtle Beach needs to work towards cleaning their water and protecting against stormwater runoff. Having the name "Dirty Myrtle" should indicate to local officials that there is a problem. Swim advisories are important because the public needs to know where it is safe for them to swim. However, I do see how this would attract negative attention to Myrtle Beach.

  7. This is a very alarming situation that the City of Myrtle Beach is clearly ignoring. There seems to be enough awareness of public health issues with these storm water pipes, enough so that signs are posted right at the discharge point. Consistent reports of illness from contact with the discharge should be enough to warrant a more intense preventative action from the city. The city, as stated in this post, earns millions of dollars from its beach industry. So why can't it afford proper storm water technology to prevent occurrences like this? Instead of discharging the infected water in to the ocean where people swim, storm water should be directed to a treatment facility where it can be treated before release. It may require zoning modifications, money, and effort, to correct this problem, but public health and sustaining the tourist economy is much more beneficial to Myrtle Beach.

  8. This is similar to my subject in that it has to do with coastal population. The population along the coast has created many problems. For Myrtle Beach, it's water quality. Not only does the Town have a water quality issues, but it neglects to let the public know. Many beachgoers are totally oblivious to swim advisories and what it means to be swimming near a piped outfall. There definitely needs to be more initiative on the Town/s part to educate their public. By neglecting them, the Town opens itself up to lawsuits if people get seriously ill or die. This article questions the morals of theTown's official and also their values. As it seems now, they value the economy and money more than the health of their town and its public and visitors.

  9. Very gross place reflective of America's worst, but Im glad there are young people like the author. Keep at it!


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