For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Cara Schildtknecht from the Winyah Rivers Alliance to learn more about their work this summer.
Where: South Carolina USA
Number of regions: 2
Number of sites: 12
Sampling season: June to September
Sampling frequency: Weekly
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2020
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cara: My name is Cara Schildtknecht. I am the Waccamaw Riverkeeper with our organization Winyah Rivers Alliance. Our organization covers all the rivers that end in Winyah Bay, Georgetown South Carolina. I grew up on the Potomac River. I have been a life-long river rat. I always loved rivers. Through my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to work with the former Riverkeeper and luckily got this job. It has been a fun and interesting path.
Cara: Yeah! It’s a great way to grow your skills. I have been doing this for four years now, and I am finally starting to feel like I am the Waccamaw Riverkeeper—that I know my watershed and I know what I am doing.
Cara: There is no typical day! It does not exist! Even if you think you are about to have a typical day something happens and you just don’t. My favorite days are field days, the days I get to go out on the watershed and do water sampling and meet people who are enjoying the watershed. A big part of my work also revolves around education, going to schools, or going to county council. Sometimes it feels like there are way too many meetings and emails. But that is a typical job for you.
Cara: Everybody should know that it is the best! (laughs). The Waccamaw is just so cool, it has cypress swamps which dye the water a black tea color. This in turn makes the water very reflective so you can take the best reflection photos.
Another unique feature of the water at Lake Waccamaw is that it has a PH value of 7. The reason for that is that the cypress trees shed their needles into the water. The needles have acidic tannins and drive the PH level down. But because the lake has some limestone formations as well, the limestone counters that and balances the water to an even 7. This unique environment is home to some very interesting endemic species.
Cara: For one, it means we can take a more basin-wide approach in our work. Since the watershed is all connected, it makes sense for us Riverkeepers to be connected as well. It is helpful for me to know what other Riverkeepers are doing because if we are doing the same thing, we can work together on it. Working within the alliance makes it possible for me to work on changes on a higher level than only my river. It also means that we can share resources, for example we started to do Swim Guide because we learned about it from another organization, and it has definitely been beneficial for us. It is all about joining forces to make a bigger difference.
Cara: It used to be the development. Horry County is one of the fastest growing counties east of the Mississippi. My concern was how do we have population growth while making sure it does not put a strain on the natural resources, including our river. The Waccamaw River is really clean and I would like to keep it that way. That is the big challenge for me, trying to find a way where we can grow sustainably without impacting the water quality.
Other than that, my biggest struggle is to let people know how clean the water is. People look at the water and they think it is dirty because it is brown. Our water looks like a good strong cup of tea and when people look at it they think it is dirty.
Cara: Often through educational events. I would hold up a sample of the water and ask, “Why is our water this color?” Most of the time people would say it is polluted, and these are people who have lived here all their lives.
Cara: Thank you! I am super excited! We originally started with three sites in North Carolina, which we received funding for. This season we expanded to South Carolina and added nine new sites. On the South Carolina side of the river there are more access points to the water. We chose sites which we had some data for through our volunteer program. They sample two weeks each month and we were able to supplement that so there are weekly samples.
These are mostly boat landings and recreational sites. We wanted to let people who use the river know that it is safe. Even if you are paddling or boating on the river you are going to come into contact with the water. If you spent a whole day on the river without getting wet, you are doing it wrong (laughs).
Cara: Sure! North Carolina has some of the highest concentrations of industrial farming. We have hog farms that have many animals in a very concentrated place. The waste of these industrial farms sometimes spills into our water.
The problem is that this spill is not only full of bacteria but also nutrients. We see how an influx of nutrients in the water leads to an algae bloom. This, in turn, leads to low oxygen levels once the bloom dies down, which results in fish kills.
We reach out to farms and farmers to try to prevent these spills.
Cara: Yes, I worked with Patrick and we even went on a flight together seeing these industrial farms from above. Our joint work is another example of how important it is to collaborate between Riverkeepers.
Cara: I tell this secret all the time, but there is an endemic snail in Lake Waccamaw called the Waccamaw amnicola that no one has any photos of. I was doing a presentation about it and could not find a single photo of this snail.
Cara: Yes! Someone has seen it but did not take a picture of it! (laughs) I think there is much more down in the lake.
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