Members of the Withers Estuary Community Collaborative have spent quite a bit of time this fall thinking about oysters.
They want to build a permanent home for the bivalve mollusks that will help clean the water that flows through Withers Swash and out into the sea.
The collaborative, a group of architects, Myrtle Beach city staffers, Coastal Carolina University professors, students, property owners and volunteers, is trying to clean Withers estuarial basin, the 4.2-square-mile area along and around Third Avenue South. They are starting in the tidal pond near Withers Park, trying to restore the natural habitat that will help filter the water.
"Right now, the most important thing is to build an oyster reef - a support for the oysters we're going to restore in the swash," said Neil Chambers, a New York architect who has taken on the swash through his involvement with local designers at InFORM Studios.
The oysters are a natural water filter and a gauge of the water's health. Chambers is applying for grants to help rebuild the ecosystem in the tidal basin behind KFC between Third and Fourth avenues South on South Kings Highway - an area that he and others say could be turned into a beautiful park and an amenity for the city.
"We'd love to buy land around the swash and start restoring it, to put it in an environmental trust," Chambers said.
The swashes - where stormwater runs out into the ocean - are monitored year-round for contaminants. Withers has gone from a place where children played in the '50s and '60s to a place where health department advisories warn people to stay out of the water.
The last comprehensive study of Withers Swash, in 1992, found fecal coliform, arsenic and trichloroethylene - among other contaminants - according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Withers Swash used to be on the National Resource Defense Council's annual "Beach Bums" list, but now it's one of the council's "Beach Buddies," which means it's being monitored.
And it and other swashes in town are also candidates for the federal "impaired waters" list - the first time Grand Strand estuaries will have made that roster.
If the effort is as far-reaching as collaborative members hope, not only would they turn the swash into a healthy natural environment, those changes could have a profound effect on the social, cultural and economic health of the neighborhood and the city.
Janet Wood, a collaborative member and a stormwater specialist for the city's Public Works department, said she has been directing Chambers toward grants that could help rebuild the swash's fish population, another critical step in the cleanup effort, and other grants that could help restore the swash's banks, reach out to educate the community about public health and other issues and more.
But it starts with the oysters.
Chambers said the collaborative needs $3,000 for the oyster reef. It has already set up a shell-recycling program with local restaurants to build the beds themselves.
"That's the most important thing right now," Chambers said. "We're working hard on this because there's a real opportunity to make this area an asset to the community."
Contact LORENA ANDERSON at 444-1722.
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