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How clean is your backyard stream? One mom finds out

Imagine children in shorts frolicking in a babbling brook in the woods behind their house. Sounds like a perfect summer daydream, doesn’t it?

Although I feel like a killjoy worrying about water purity, the signs posted at Falls Park on the Reedy about water safety made me wonder how clean our own little backyard creek is.

The fact that there’s no sign of tadpoles or other life adds to my suspicion. Am I letting my kids play in ditch water? Lawn chemicals? Leaking auto fluids? Eek!

As a resident of the city of Greenville, my first idea was to call the city, where I spoke to Paul Dow, assistant city engineer with the Environmental Engineering Division.

Dow’s information settled my mind at first – it is an unnamed tributary of another local creek, so it’s at least more than just a ditch – but ultimately, he stated an urban stream has “potential for concerns.”

“There is a city sanitary sewer line that runs along the creek,” Dow explained. “Although we were unable to find any recorded incidences of sewer overflows or sewage spills for this area. We found a SC DHEC (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control) monitoring station downstream of you, just south of I-85. This monitoring station indicated historic exceedances of fecal coliform (indicator of sewage) and lack of macroinvertebrates. The location of this station cannot be tied directly to your location, but may give an indication to the potential concerns.”

At this point, I was really glad my kids’ contact with the creek hadn’t gone much beyond poking sticks in the water and jumping over it.

I found three options for water testing – sending a sample to DHEC, getting involved in the Adopt-A-Stream program, and ordering a water test kit online.

Expecting Clemson University to test water samples, I checked there next. Dr. David Freeman of the Department of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences advised that Clemson only tests for research studies, but DHEC tests well water for purity. Without even knowing what I’d heard from Dow at the city, Freeman had similar suspicions.

“I would recommend that you test for fecal coliforms, which will inform you if there is any microbial contamination,” Freeman said. “If you suspect runoff from nearby farms, you could have the tests done for insecticides. Unless there is any reason to suspect industrial activity, there would be no need to test for metals, other inorganics, or volatile organics. DHEC should be able to help you interpret the results.”

DHEC charges for individual tests, and all of them together would cost around $200.

Given that we don’t actually plan to drink from the creek, I hoped for a less expensive solution.

Both Freeman and Dow mentioned the Adopt-A-Stream program, which has some events coming up. You can find a schedule at Dow also advised me to check into the Greenville Zoo, which rents test kits at no charge. Interest parents simply have to email the zoo’s education curator at for details.

By the way, families who wish to get involved in the Adopt-A-Stream program may also want to participate in the zoo’s Frog Watch program to aid in conservation of amphibians.

Testing kits from the zoo are free to rent, and families may return the kit to the zoo for processing.

After ordering a home test kit online, the idea of having a pro at the zoo analyze my creek water sample seems more sensible than my attempt to turn my backyard into a pseudo-chemistry lab.

The home test I purchased on cost about $20. It tested for pesticides, lead, bacteria, nitrates, nitrites, pH – enough to confuse me. Each test had a different set of instructions, so the kit was a headache. Plus, I ruined the most important test – I spilled the bacteria vial, rendering that test useless. Some of the tests seemed to suggest certain chemicals were not present in alarming amounts, but the tests for lead and pesticides looked like they could be positive or inconclusive. Knowing that there would be a much higher standard for drinking water, I reached out to DHEC for help interpreting my test results.

I asked Robert Yannity, public information officer for DHEC, if it was safe let my kids play in the creek as long as they washed up later and take care never to swallow it.

“The kids should be fine in the creek taking the precautions you mention. Washing afterwards is important as well as staying out if they do have cuts or abrasions,” Yannity said. “Also, they should probably avoid the creek after heavy rainfalls – not only could the increased water present a drowning hazard, there potentially may be more pollutants from runoff.”

He also provided a link to information from DHEC. If you’re concerned, check it out —