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Coastal Heritage Magazine

All Hands on Deck: Addressing Coastal Challenges of the Next 30 Years

Over the next 30 years, a multitude of changes will alter South Carolina’s coastal landscape. How will communities adapt to the challenges presented?

An aerial image of a tidal creek and surrounding forest.
On the Cover: The purchase of the 152-acre Westmoreland Preserve (shown here in the center of the image) is a key aspect of an effort to mitigate flooding in the Conway, S.C., area. Photo by Mac Stone.

Dr. Susan Lovelace.Message from the Executive Director

Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world.

— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Although Rachel Carson was talking about the past century, in this one we find our moment. We look to the future to better understand the benefits we enjoy from our estuaries, coasts, and the ocean and to grasp the challenges of maintaining those benefits amidst an increasing coastal population, associated development, and a warming climate. Beginning with this issue we say goodbye to Joey Holleman, who deftly and eloquently wrote Coastal Heritage from 2016-2020, and welcome Roger Real Drouin, our new science writer, to our Sea Grant family. I think you will find Roger’s writing style influenced by authors like Rachel Carson. In the following double issue, Roger explores some of this century’s coastal challenges and highlights innovative approaches to those challenges.

Although not new to the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, I began this year as the executive director. Having served six years as the assistant director for Development and Extension, I am excited to take on this new role. The last year has been a challenge for our staff, our universities, coastal municipalities, businesses, and residents. We empathize with the trauma created by COVID-19 and experienced by our colleagues and neighbors. As the country also reckons with injustice toward African Americans, a theme often expressed in Coastal Heritage, Consortium staff are increasing our efforts to reach out to communities that are underserved and to become more intentional about equity in our partnerships and service.

In the throes of the pandemic many of us listened to the sea for solace and inspiration. We can use this to lift us up as we continue the hard work of coastal planning and adaptation, so that the coast and ocean can sustain us into the future. The Consortium will forever benefit from the legacy left by Rick DeVoe during his 40-year tenure, 22 years of which was at the helm. As he mentioned in the last issue, the future will have us question, “What is normal?” We have the opportunity for an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, as suggested in this issue by Norman Levine and Erik Smith, to define our future through our actions. Our Consortium is well-prepared to assist coastal businesses, residents, local governments, and organizations with the science and processes needed for decision-making toward a resilient future.

Photo of Susan Lovelace, Ph.D., executive director of S.C. Sea Grant Consortium by Grace Beahm Alford.

A Confluence of Factors

From the salt marshes of Kiawah Island to the meandering shores of the Waccamaw River, and points up and down the coast of South Carolina, change has been coming.

A confluence of factors – including rising sea level, compound flooding (tidal and rain-driven), more frequent rain bursts, warming temperatures, and an anticipated population influx – will bring complex coastal challenges for the next 30 years.

This special double issue of Coastal Heritage explores some of the major coastal changes taking shape across landscapes and communities, and the problems and opportunities presented, as identified by a range of experts, from coastal ecologists and geologists to conservation coordinators and community leaders.

All Hands on Deck: Addressing Coastal Challenges of the Next 30 Years

On a gray and brisk December afternoon, Lee Bundrick treks further into the West End Marsh, a sweeping preserve jutting from the Kiawah Island Parkway. A light rain falls over the windswept smooth cordgrass.

His progress stopped by a narrow yet steep tidal creek, Bundrick turns his gaze due east. “Just beyond those hammock islands,” says Bundrick, land preservation coordinator for the Kiawah Conservancy, “there’s a net loss of marsh.”

Changing Marshes. Lee Bundrick, land preservation coordinator for the Kiawah Conservancy, has been monitoring the effects of sea-level rise on the salt marshes of Kiawah Island. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
Bundrick has been studying the salt marshes that flank Kiawah Island, trying to understand the impacts of rising seas. Navigating a drone on less-gusty days, Bundrick has captured videography of the West End Marsh, comparing the imagery to historic maps and images dating back to 1977.

“What you see in this drone footage is two large areas that are being impacted,” Bundrick says. “Those are areas we are concerned about.” Approximately 400 acres in the preserve of 720 acres are losing ground, increasingly inundated by water pushed in by the Kiawah River.

The change is happening incrementally, little known to residents and vacationers who might stop at the parkway’s scenic overlook to take in the view of a vast marsh that appears vibrant, flourishing even in its winter hues of brown.

But the effects of sea-level rise on the salt marshes of Kiawah Island are being monitored by Bundrick and Norm Levine, a professor at the College of Charleston and director of the college’s Santee Cooper GIS Laboratory and Lowcountry Hazards Center. As part of an island-wide marsh vulnerability study, Bundrick and Levine are creating digitized shorelines that identify changes to the tidal marshlands stretching along the backside of Kiawah, from Seabrook Island to the Stono River. The project is supported by technical assistance through the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

Bundrick and Levine are still collecting data, but they are getting a clearer picture of where the marsh is slipping away and where it is susceptible to erosion.

“Some areas on Kiawah have converted from [vegetated] marsh to mud flat, a little bit more area is becoming mud flat right now, and the marsh grass is thinning,” says Levine.

Using information about soil elevations, an upcoming phase of research could help project impacts of sea-level rise in forthcoming years. Such information would help as researchers, planners, coastal land managers, and conservation leaders consider mitigation efforts to try to stem the loss of marsh habitat, which provides panoramic views for residents and vacationers and natural storm protection, as well as critical wildlife habitat. Overall, there are some 3,750 acres of salt marsh, which comprise roughly 45 percent of the island’s entire area.

Furthermore, for Bundrick, it’s crucial that their research is easily duplicated, so other communities can, in turn, use the same methodology to better understand the site-specific effects of sea-level rise. Because of topography and other factors, Bundrick says, “a vulnerable area on Kiawah is going to be a lot different than a vulnerable area on the northern side of Johns Island.”

Extremely Vulnerable

A single saltmarsh sparrow starts from a clump of black needlerush. Giving three high-pitched chips, the tiny sparrow, patterned gray and yellow-brown with an orange-buff face, flies off.

Starting every mid-October, a healthy wintering population of the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta) continues to return to the salt marshes of South Carolina – to locales such as Kiawah Island and Hilton Head to the Winyah Bay estuary, just north of Georgetown.

They migrate from New England, returning to the same exact wintering spot, says Christopher Hill, a professor of biology at Coastal Carolina University, who conducted a banding study of the furtive sparrows from 2009 to 2013 at 15 different roost sites.

The winter denizens use two different areas of the salt marsh. During low tide, the sparrow forages through the low smooth cordgrass (Sporobolus alterniflorus) for spiders, other small invertebrates, and the seeds of the marsh cordgrass. During high tide, it roosts in adjacent clumps of terrain – called high marsh – comprised largely of black needlerush.

But both the sparrow and its habitat are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise.

“On really high tides, they have these refuges” of high marsh, says Hill. The small islets – with shrubby vegetation and a slightly higher elevation than the surrounding marsh – are often about the size of “your living room.” If these islets get washed away, the sparrows lose an important part of their habitat, Hill says.

Furthermore, these areas of high marsh are less tolerant of saltwater intrusion than the low marsh, and thus could be more susceptible to inundation from sea-level rise, adds Craig Watson, South Atlantic coordinator for the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture, a conservation partnership guided by a mission of protecting three estuarine flagship bird species – the saltmarsh sparrow, American black duck, and the black rail – and the salt marshes they depend on.

Wintering Ground. This saltmarsh sparrow was captured, banded, and released on Kiawah Island so researchers can track its movements. South Carolina is an essential leg of the saltmarsh sparrow’s wintering range. Photo by William Oakley, University of Oklahoma.
Inhabiting only tidal salt marshes, the saltmarsh sparrow is a true marsh obligate species. It relies directly on this habitat for breeding, migration, and wintering. “They need the marsh, and we are losing the marsh,” says Watson.

Loss of habitat in both the sparrows’ breeding and wintering grounds could further imperil the species, which has seen a nine-percent decline in its population each year over the past 15 years.

South Carolina is an essential leg of the sparrows’ wintering range, which extends from North Carolina to north Florida. Once the saltmarsh sparrows alight for winter, they remain until April or so. “They are here probably longer than on their breeding grounds,” Hill says.

In the last two decades alone, Charleston Harbor has experienced between four-to-six inches of sea-level rise, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tide gauge data. Moreover, continuing warming temperatures and additional melting of land ice are anticipated to further hasten the pace, states the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Sea level in Charleston has risen by 10 inches since 1950, with an acceleration anticipated. From 2020 to 2050, Charleston Harbor is projected to experience a sea-level rise of 1.4 feet, according to recent data from NOAA and the National Climate Assessment.

Over the coming years, “just a small amount of additional sea rise will have a big impact on the marshes, because of the topography,” says Watson. Even an additional six inches of sea-level rise, for instance, would mean drastic changes for much of the state’s salt marshes, both those that flank sea islands and along coastal estuaries.

Over the next 10-20 years, Watson would like to see a suite of projects take shape, up and down the coast of South Carolina, which holds 20 percent of the total salt marshes on the East Coast. It will take deliberative planning, including smart development and the conservation of unspoiled estuarine habitat, leaving more room for these ecosystems to adapt naturally in the face of rising sea level by migrating landward. In some cases, it may be necessary to consider relocating a roadway that’s impeding an eroding marsh from migrating. “Living shorelines,” a restorative shoreline buffer made of natural materials, could help certain types of marshes accrete sediment and better withstand the rising sea.

Coastal Impact. From 2020 to 2050, Charleston Harbor is projected to experience a sea-level rise of 1.4 feet, according to recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
The time to start planning is sooner rather than later.

“We need to start thinking of alternatives,” Watson says. “If a road has to be relocated, the key is to show the benefits of that project to everyone. If not, conservationists have a real uphill battle.”

Protecting the Marsh Edge

Embedded in coastal areas, natural materials, such as oysters or coconut fiber, have been shown to help protect estuarine shorelines from wave energy and encroaching erosion.

Known as “living shorelines,” these projects allow certain types of marshes to accrete sediment, the basic component that sustains salt marshes. An oyster bed placed along the erosionprone shore on Hunting Island in 2010 resulted in observable marsh accretion and lush Sporobolus alterniflorus growth after just three years, says Peter Kingsley-Smith, a senior marine scientist who heads up the living shorelines effort for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

In the face of accelerating sea-level rise, “living shorelines are not a panacea or a magic bullet,” but researchers have seen that in locations where they are implemented, the projects help “maintain a land-water continuum,” says Kingsley-Smith. Living shorelines also effectively withstand wave energy.

The nature-based projects are a way to protect the edge of marsh from erosion – including from sea-level rise in some cases. In the future, a technology could be used in tandem with living shorelines to support certain marsh areas. The technology, called thin layer placement, uses a hydraulic means to spray or flood a layer of dredged material in a specific area. This process is meant to supplement the natural processes of sediment settling onto salt marshes and wrack areas.

The SCDNR is beginning to research the use of this technology and study the best methodology and areas that could benefit, according to Denise Sanger, associate marine scientist at the Marine Resources Research Institute of the department. “It is possible that we could eventually see a thin layer placement project being applied to the marsh, and a living shoreline project being added to the shoreline to help maintain the edge,” says Sanger.

Embedded. Living shorelines allow certain types of marshes to accrete sediment, the basic component that sustains salt marshes. Where they are implemented, the projects help “maintain a land-water continuum,” says Peter Kingsley-Smith, senior marine scientist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

A Multitude of Impacts

Incremental loss of salt marsh habitat is one of the significant effects from climate change. Over the next 30 years, a multitude of impacts, as predicted by climatologists and ecologists and combined with factors related to population growth, will alter the coastal landscape of South Carolina.

The impacts will be far-reaching: In downtown Charleston and its suburbs, flooding caused by tidal flows and rain will become more frequent. In rivers and their estuaries, warming waters could contribute to decreased oxygen levels, resulting in possible fish kills. As rain storms intensify, flooding along those rivers – both on the coast and further inland – will increase, putting many more residents in harm’s way. Places such as Conway, S.C., will see more and more flooding events. Stronger hurricanes and storm surges will pose increased threats to coastal communities. Historic Gullah communities, established during the Reconstruction Era (1861-1900) and situated east of the Cooper River, outside Charleston, and on sea islands, are facing mounting pressures from new waves of development and rising tides.

What can be done to brace for and adapt to these acute risks on our coast? Can communities and leaders meet the coastal challenges of the next 30 years?

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach that is needed,” says Levine, the College of Charleston geologist.

“We need sound science to underpin those discussions,” says Erik Smith, a biogeochemist with the University of South Carolina and research manager of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. “But then it comes down to societal decisions, and that will mean people coming together and finding common ground to figure out how we deal with these impacts.”

Efforts such as a Marsh Management Plan for the city of Folly Beach – as well as a similar plan being considered on Kiawah Island – and a newly-formed State of South Carolina Office of Resilience (see sidebar on the next page) are examples of the kind of “forward-thinking” measures that will be needed to address climate risks, according to Smith.

Technologist. As director of the Lowcountry Hazards Center at the College of Charleston, Norm Levine uses a variety of technology to map and monitor trends, including sea-level rise and topographic changes in the Charleston region. He says collaboration is key in addressing the coastal challenges of the next 30 years. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
Those risks are becoming more acute, yet no less complex, states Levine, who has been studying climate change and its impacts since the 1980s, and, as director of the Lowcountry Hazards Center, has mapped and monitored geological trends, including sea-level rise. Perhaps a crucial next step, Levine offers, will be a collective re-focusing to goals such as sea-level rise preparedness and enacting smart development strategies. “Nationally, COVID-19 has displaced some of the discussions on climate,” Levine says. “Over the next five years, we will need to get the focus back on climate change and rising seas, and locally on climate resiliency.”

As vaccines and national- and state-recovery efforts help usher an end to the global pandemic, Levine envisions an opportunity to begin to “ramp-up attention” on these climate and environmental issues. This shift could mobilize community support for collaborative planning efforts, such as stormwater innovations, low-impact development, and wetland preservation. There is an opportunity for municipalities, counties, developers, scientists, conservation groups, and others to all work together as this re-focusing occurs, Levine says.

Considering the Interactive Effects of Climate Change

Smith, the University of South Carolina biogeochemist and manager of the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, has been studying how the “double whammy” of climate change and urbanization are interacting to alter the ecology of the Waccamaw River.

This research focuses on how excessive nutrients and organic matter in stormwater runoff can starve rivers, such as the Waccamaw, of oxygen. The Waccamaw River, from Conway to Pawleys Island, has been deemed impaired by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control due to low dissolved oxygen levels. The river is one waterway among a lengthy list of impaired waterways throughout the state – many of which have been deemed as impaired because of low oxygen levels.

Increases in development along the lower reaches of the river have resulted in more nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, in the watershed. When stormwater washes these nutrients into stormwater ponds, they cause increased algal growth in the ponds. This algal growth, in turn, produces excessive organic matter that, when exported from the ponds, fuels microbial decomposition in downstream rivers and creeks – a process that consumes dissolved oxygen, which can result in an insufficient amount of oxygen available for fish and other aquatic life.

Because of climate change, however, this complex reaction gets even more complicated, Smith says.

There is evidence that low oxygen levels will be exacerbated by rising water temperatures, which can speed up microbial metabolism and decomposition of organic matter in the water. Even small changes in water temperatures can trigger a wider impact on downstream watersheds and fisheries, says Smith.

“Moving forward, we need to look at these interactive effects [of increased development and climate change],” says Smith. Interdisciplinary work, on a range of topics, will thus become essential, as researchers from different fields study complex problems in a dynamic coastal zone.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Canal Plan. A Market Street canal would allow a space for tidal and rain waters and help alleviate frequent flooding that impacts this popular stretch of downtown Charleston, says Tim Callahan, a hydrogeologist at the College of Charleston. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Bold Ideas Necessary

“Major Daniel’s Creek” coursed from the Cooper River through the Charleston peninsula until around 1807, when crews started filling in the tidal creek to make way for the proposed North and South Market streets.

At the time, engineers considered adding a canal to run alongside the new streets and manage displaced tidal and rain waters in the low-lying area. “They planned to have a canal down this area, but the canal was never built,” says Christina Rae Butler, a professor of historic preservation and author of Lowcountry at High Tide: A History of Flooding, Drainage, and Reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina. Instead, the tidal creek called Major Daniel’s was filled in with city refuse, cords of word, and mud to make way for the streets and new Market area – with no alternative outlet for tidal and flood waters.

Fast forward two centuries, and some are wondering if the canal should become a bold new project as part of the city’s efforts to adapt to sea-level rise and the threat of more powerful storms.

For College of Charleston hydrogeologist Tim Callahan, a new canal could roughly follow the route of Major Daniel’s Creek, transforming North and South Market streets into a modern take on the original streetscape plan. Most importantly, the canal would allow large volumes of tidal and flood waters to ebb into the waterway, instead of flowing over the historic Charleston City Market and nearby sidewalks and roadways.

“Boardwalks could line the canal,” Callahan says. “Folks could walk over it, and the canal could do what it needs to do.”

This is, of course, a concept. But it’s the kind of bold step needed to address multiple climate risks the city faces in the next 30-50 years, Callahan says.

The idea was highlighted in an expansive visioning study in 2007 by the Clemson Architecture Center. The study proposed urban-design concepts that could address sea-level rise scenarios for the Charleston peninsula (from one foot to 12 feet of sea-level rise). It presented several forward-looking concepts, from the Market Street water retention canal, to a Lockwood Drive retention park, and west peninsula seawall.

Callahan uses the document to show his students in geology and environmental geosciences how new ideas will be needed to adapt to sealevel rise.

He says the Market Street canal could spur other similar projects; Are there elements of Venice that could work here? he ponders.

“The main goal would be to allow space for that water, to use natural and engineered solutions, such as new tidal impoundments and canals,” says Callahan, who also is chair of the College of Charleston’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.

The recent Dutch Dialogues workshops and discussions have inspired Charlestonians to consider forward-thinking ideas to address flooding and increase the region’s climate resiliency. The Dutch Dialogues is an international movement that emphasizes ways to live with water, a concept that some local engineers and geologists have endorsed.

A Market Street canal could be a pioneering project for the city. “The Dutch have done similar things around The Netherlands,” Callahan says. “Their main principle is to provide settings where land serves both people and nature.”

Butler, the historian and author of Lowcountry at High Tide, believes Market Street, in particular, would be a good locale to try a re-imagined streetspace that incorporates a place for water. “We know the Market will flood and we know why it will flood,” says Butler, who also is a professor at the American College of the Building Arts and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. “It was a creek.”

A canaled street would be a visible project that could work in conjunction with the city’s expansive underground drainage improvements, including upgrades underway in the market area.

“That is a high-profile part of the city, but it is not a major thoroughfare,” Butler says. Thus, a street closed to traffic might work as long as tourists could walk to shops and to the Museum at Market Hall, Butler says.

First and foremost, though, collaboration will be key as the community assesses climate risks and possible mitigation strategies, such as a re-imagined Market Street. “It is time to get the geologists, engineers, city planners, city preservationists, the Chamber of Commerce, environmental groups, and hospitality and tourism all together,” the historian and professor says.

Honing in on storm remediation, local and federal government officials are moving forward with plans to build a seawall to protect the city’s historic downtown from encroaching water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is collecting public input on its proposal to construct an eight-mile perimeter wall, according to USACE plans. The wall would reach as high as eight feet off the ground, and include five pumps that would push rainfall out. The proposed perimeter is engineered to protect the city from storm surge, but is not designed to address tidal or rain flooding.

Joshua Robinson, principal of Robinson Design Engineers, has assessed the USACE project as a consultant for the city of Charleston. He believes future infrastructure projects – including a perimeter, if one is constructed – should be designed to a world-class standard.

“There are some unique ways to live with the water – for sea water to interact with the city,” Robinson says. “Charleston has a tremendous opportunity to provide leadership in this area.”

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Recurring Dilema. Rain combined with high tide often create nuisance floods, such as this one in 2014 in Charleston, and lead to conversations about resilience. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

A More Balanced Approach

About 20 years ago, Queen Quet, or Marquetta L. Goodwine, began noticing the troubling changes – bleached white tree skeletons at Hunting Island and Edisto Beach where trees died off, and an absence of catfish in estuaries where they had once flourished. She also noted how massive rains followed by drought damaged okra crops and garden fields.

“Trees are not supposed to be lying down,” says Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. “This was a major indication that something was going on.”

So, some Gullah residents began talking about the changes encircling them.

“We were called ‘emotional natives,’ ” says Queen Quet, reflecting on the criticism they faced at the time.

It’s not surprising that Queen Quet honed in on a stream of changes that would become significant threats long before “climate change” and “sea-level rise” were common phrases. For Gullah people, there is no decoupling of cultural and ecological matters, and changes in the natural environment caused grave concern – and they still do.

“It is one ecosystem where we the Gullah/Geechee live, the oyster beds protect the Spartina marsh, then that protects the maritime forest,” says Queen Quet, who lives on St. Helena Island with her family. “There is no way our culture will survive if we don’t all take drastic measures to protect all these things.”

The Gullah and Geechee people are descendants of enslaved Africans who still live on the sea islands and in the Lowcountry along the coast of the southeastern United States.

In the early 19th century, many newly imported enslaved Africans in South Carolina were from Angola, commonly known as “N’Gulla.” “Gullah” could have originally referred to Angolans. But the Gullah people were not just Angolans; they traced their roots to different African groups. After the Civil War, the Gullah/Geechee people continued to live in Lowcountry settlements from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida. This fertile swath of pinelands, sea islands, salt marshes, swamps, and creeks is known in historic preservation circles as the Gullah/Geechee Coast.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Changing Climate. “We were called ‘emotional natives,’ ” says Queen Quet, reflecting on the criticism Gullah residents faced when they began talking about the impacts of climate change. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
Gullah communities dot the South Carolina coast, from neighborhoods such as the historic Phillips Community in Mount Pleasant to sea island communities, including St. Helena Island.

Residents often live in low, traditional homes in the coastal plain on the sea islands. Many of them maintain the agrarian and fishing subsistence traditions of their ancestors.

Preservation of the natural environment and preservation of the historic Gullah/Geechee communities are intricately interwoven. Thus, it will take the same focus and sense of stewardship to preserve both the last remaining Gullah/Geechee communities and the South Carolina coast’s pristine marshes and coastal ecosystems, says Queen Quet.

“There needs to be more of a balance and a protection of nature,” she says.

That boils down to land conservation and a tougher look at where new development can and should not occur.

Several years ago, the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition worked closely with the Lowcountry Land Trust to preserve 17 acres of property surrounding the Angel Oak on Johns Island. “This was a pivotal moment in helping the continuation of not only the life of the historic Angel Oak, but of the Gullah/Geechee communities on Johns Island,” Queen Quet says. “The ecological harm that would have come for the sake of constructing more buildings was not worth the pricelessness of sustaining the cultural heritage of the community and protecting a natural treasure.”

In the future, a movement based on the “30×30” land and water conservation goal holds promise, says Queen Quet. This recent effort to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. land and ocean by 2030 is part of an international push for conservation aiming to protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change impacts, and has sprouted more local efforts across the nation. The South Carolina legislature was one of the first to propose legislation to promote a 30×30 plan, but it has not been enacted. Counties, she says, can also follow suit.

In addition, she would like to also see a more balanced approach to growth and development over the next three decades. Along the coast, counties have often focused on competing for growth revenues, she says; it is time, however, for coastal counties, including Beaufort County where Queen Quet lives, to promote a different framework for development.

“Why can’t Beaufort County be the first county that says we will give tax incentives to those who don’t build directly on the marsh or those who don’t build right on the beach and then have the other counties model this?” asks Queen Quet. “Let’s double or triple the setbacks and offer incentives for not building.”

Both efforts would ultimately benefit important fisheries and ecotourism, and sustain Gullah/Geechee communities that dot the coastal plain and sea islands of South Carolina.

“People can still build. But they don’t need to displace the last few Gullah/Geechee communities or destroy the environment. It is all about living in balance so we can leave things for the next generation to have a high quality of life.”

Queen Quet asks herself what her legacy will be – especially in regards to the most pressing ecological challenges.

She agrees with Levine, the professor and director of the Lowcountry Hazards Center: collaboration will be essential over the next few decades. “We should be planning for the youth that will come behind us,” she says. “The era that culminated in many existential crises – climate change, sea-level rise, more hurricanes and storms, racial inequality – could be the era in which the whole community comes together.”

Preparing for climate change and also lowering our carbon footprint will both be important efforts. “Why can’t we stop and reverse some of our behaviors?” she asks. “There are people who are doing positive things and some who are still individualistic. My vision is that the scales will tip in a positive direction because of the ones who are doing positive things.”

A Preservation Effort in the Phillips Community, Amid Change

Horlbeck Creek ebbs slowly from the Wando River. The creek is like an old friend for Richard Habersham. He grins under his mask as several Canada geese soar above noisily. After waiting a moment for the geese to fly past, Habersham points downstream.

“That’s where I learned to swim,” he says.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Sense of Place. Richard Habersham, president of the Phillips Community Association in Charleston County, stands on a bridge that once spanned Horlbeck Creek. Nearby developments surrounding the historic Gullah settlement have increased runoff pollution into the creek, and flooding issues have worsened, Habersham says. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
He grew up shrimping and fishing for mullet in the creek, and his grandfather was a fisherman, often selling his catch to neighbors. Yet it’s a different creek now, impacted by the changes surrounding the historic Phillips Community in Mount Pleasant. The old, narrow Parker’s Bridge his great grandfather, Hercules Geddies, and grandfather, Thomas, would have crossed has long been dilapidated, the land just ahead of that was once maritime forest, and pecan farmland has been filled in and developed as the RiverTowne Country Club golf course and subdivision. Access to the creek is becoming more and more limited. The waterway is marred, Habersham says, by rainwater runoff from all the nearby developments built since the 1980s and the golf course across the creek. “There are hardly any fiddler crabs,” an indicator of a thriving marsh ecosystem, says Habersham.

But Habersham, 67, still comes to this spot from time to time. His family has been a fixture in the Phillips Community since the 1870s, when former slaves who had served their masters on three nearby plantations bought land along what is now HWY 41 and set out to make a new start as free men and women.

The historic community today is facing significant pressure from a range of factors – including new waves of residential and commercial development, worsening flooding, and widening roadways.

But Habersham, president of the Phillips Community Association, wouldn’t live anywhere else. And it’s worth fighting for. In 1999, Habersham got involved in local governance issues that impact the community he has lived in his whole life. The catalyst, at the time, was the Mount Pleasant Waterworks storage tank planned for the northern corner of the Phillips Community and a concurrent push to rezone adjacent land to a commercial designation, changes that residents strongly opposed and eventually were not implemented.

“That was the issue that got us involved,” he says. “We took notice, and we realized we have to pay attention or we will end up like many of the Black communities in our area.”

One such neighborhood that has mostly vanished is “Four Mile,” a historic African American settlement community several miles south of Phillips on HWY 17. The homes there were displaced after a widening of the highway and influx of new commercial businesses, including Mount Pleasant Towne Center.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Cultural Protection. It is important, says Michael Allen, a retired education specialist with the National Park Service, for African American settlement communities to try to document and preserve their rich cultural heritage. Such an effort is well underway in the Phillips Community. Photo by Wade Spees.

Settled Along Horlbeck Creek

Habersham’s great grandfather, Hercules Geddies, was a former slave on one of the nearby plantations. During the Reconstruction Era, Hercules and his family set out to make a home and establish a community with other freed men and women. He purchased property and worked as a miller grinding corn from nearby farms, and farmed his land. “He was one of the first to purchase property in the community,” Habersham says.

The Phillips Community, established around 1875, is one of the oldest communities in the Mount Pleasant area. Some of Richard Habersham’s siblings are heirs to the property his great grandfather purchased, and Habersham lives on a smaller parcel of property close by in the Phillips Community.

This community, settled along Horlbeck Creek, was named after the Phillips Plantation. Former slaves of the Laurel Hill, Parker Island, and Boone Hall plantations purchased the land in 10-acre parcels and founded the Phillips Community. The freedmen who settled here were middle class tradesmen and successful businessmen whose descendants still own the land. Out of the 18 original owners, two freedwomen, Sarah Wiseman and Betty Bailey, purchased land and were the heads of households on two of the properties.

The Era of Reconstruction, a guidebook by the U.S. National Park Service (USNPS), highlights the importance of pioneers such as Hercules Geddies and Sarah Wiseman: “The era was defined by events and persons of national importance, but it was also characterized by dramatic changes in the lived experiences of everyday people. The outcomes of vast political and social mobilization of the era of Reconstruction remain visible across the landscape, particularly in the existence of African American schools and churches, and in some places as remnants of freedpeople’s communities.”

In this era, the South Carolina Land Commission was directed to purchase, subdivide, and sell agricultural property to landless African American freedmen. Between 1869 and 1879, 14,000 Black families throughout the state purchased small farms, according to the Charleston County Historical Resources Survey 2016 update. The average lots in the Lowcountry ranged from between 10 to 25 acres.

The Phillips Community is one of more than a dozen remaining African American settlement communities concentrated east of the Cooper River, says Michael Allen, a retired education specialist with the USNPS who was a driving force behind the establishment of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area designated by Congress in 2006. While the issues might vary and the priorities will be different in each neighborhood, similar challenges are being experienced in settlement communities throughout Charleston and Berkeley counties. “Phillips is a microcosm of the challenges that African American settlement communities are facing,” Allen says.

Those communities settled by Gullah/Geechee people include Snowden, Seven Mile, East Cooper, and Remley’s Point.

It is important, Allen says, for these communities to try to document and preserve their rich cultural heritage – an effort that is well underway in Phillips. It is this documentation and historic recognition that will help Phillips weather some of the external pressures, and ultimately survive in a rapidly changing landscape.

“My firm belief is these places have value; these communities are important and they deserve the right to exist,” Allen says. “Folks made sacrifices at the end of the Civil War to band together to form these settlement communities east of the Cooper River.”

The process of cultural preservation, Allen says, will also help communities forge alliances, such as the Phillips Community has done with the Preservation Society of Charleston and Coastal Conservation League, and thus have an amplified voice on important issues.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Historic Fabric. The Phillips Community is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Mount Pleasant area. Photo by Roger Real Drouin, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.
Habersham agrees that documentation and historic recognition is a powerful tool, in terms of identity and community preservation. Phillips, which is located in unincorporated Charleston County, is being considered as a pilot community in the county’s new expanded historic preservation program. That would mean specific local protections for the community, Habersham notes. The Phillips Community also is in the process of submitting an application for the National Register of Historic Places, a federal program to coordinate and support efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect some of America’s most historic resources.

These historic-preservation efforts, as well as the formation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, also will instill community cohesion and form a way for residents to contribute to the historic fabric of the region, enlightening both residents and visitors.

“We can tell our own story,” Habersham says. “A lot of people don’t know our history or our story, and we want people to know . . . the human part of this story, where our descendants had hardship, but they still survived and kept their family together and kept old traditions.”

One project in the heart of Phillips would help the community tell its story. Habersham is proud of a grassroots effort to build a historic replica of a Gullah heritage schoolhouse that stood in the community until it was torn down in the 1960s. The vision is for the schoolhouse to be built beside a new community center in the neighborhood’s greenbelt park, near Oliver Brown Road. He envisions events such as an autumn hayride, as well, that would be open to the public.

For Phillips residents, flooding is a frequent reminder of the changes enveloping the community. “We didn’t have a flooding problem until the development came about,” Habersham says. The loss of trees and expansion of pavement contribute to flooding, he says. In addition, areas elevated by fill during development have resulted in Phillips becoming the lowest point for rainwaters to flood.

“I still have the water mark on my garage,” Habersham says of recent flooding.

Furthermore, sea-level rise, which likely played a role in recent compound flooding in some areas, will exacerbate future flooding issues. Homes and culturally important sites throughout many of the remaining historic African American settlement communities are at risk, because these are situated in low-lying areas.

“These areas may have been stable over the last century, but they are now threatened by storms and sea-level rise,” says Allen.

Looking ahead, additional issues, such as heirs’ property complications, the threat of rising property taxes, and proposed zoning changes are consistent problems for residents.

A recent issue that proved controversial is a HWY 41 road-widening project.

In 2020, Charleston County traffic planners presented two main roadwidening options – one of which widened the roadway through Phillips to five lanes. That option would have long-term implications for the community, splitting the community in two and causing a ripple effect through the neighborhood, Habersham says.

The plan was widely opposed by organizations such as the Coastal Conservation League, Historic Charleston Foundation, Charleston Preservation Society, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, Charleston Trident Association of Realtors, and Lowcountry Land Trust. On March 4, 2021, county transportation officials released an updated, proposed plan utilizing an alternative concept.

The updated plan significantly minimizes the impact to Phillips, widening the highway to only three lanes, two lanes plus a center turn lane, through the community. The project also widens stretches of other roadways, including Dunes West Boulevard, thus directing some passthrough traffic away from Phillips.

The discussions around the highway project have shown the importance of including the Phillips Community in future planning on matters, such as stormwater issues and the impacts of sea-level rise on compound flooding in the areas, says Brian Walker, an environmental anthropologist who has conducted doctorate dissertation fieldwork in the Phillips Community. The neighborhood should be involved in the conversations for such significant issues. That dialogue should include what’s happening with basic, yet necessary, aspects of stormwater improvements or the maintenance of stormwater ditches and other facilities in the neighborhood. “There needs to be a continual trust building with the community,” he says.

Offshore Wind Potential

Imagine several wind turbines about 15-20 miles offshore from the Grand Strand coast, each more than 260 feet tall, with a marine aquaculture farm spanning its foundation. The aquaculture farm could raise red snapper or oysters as the wind turbines spin above. The integrated project could bring the co-benefits of lowering carbon emissions while reducing demand on fisheries stressed by an increasing population and climate change, according to Paul Gayes, a professor and the director of Coastal Carolina University’s Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies.

“We would get dual use out of this kind of project,” says Gayes, noting the shared platform would create a secure and sustainable source of energy and food, as well as green jobs that come with both endeavors.

The idea of an aquaculture farm affixed to a wind turbine has been considered in Europe, and piloted in a few instances in China. Why not consider it in South Carolina? wonders Gayes.

Research would be needed to gauge the possible impacts on bird populations, wave patterns, and shipping activity, but in 10 or 20 years, such a project could be feasible, the center director thinks.

Wind generation has been gaining momentum in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as states in those regions look to meet their renewable-energy portfolio goals and the cost of electricity from wind continues to decrease. Gayes thinks the coast of South Carolina also holds potential in terms of wind generation. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has identified four potential Wind Energy Call Areas off South Carolina’s coast, where the agency is looking for interest from wind-energy developers that might want to lease offshore acreage. The state has the sixth-highest offshore wind energy potential in the U.S.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Clean Energy. Many countries and regions support wind energy as one way for companies to reduce carbon emissions, leading to a boom in offshore-wind generation. Photo by Povl Peterson, Dreamstime.
Wind-generation in South Carolina, Gayes believes, also can be planned to have another possible co-benefit: wave attenuation, or physically altering the waves so they have less of an impact on a nearby area. “These [wind farms] are big systems and they could modify wind or waves,” says Gayes. “However, rather than an unintended effect, maybe there can be an effect that we benefit from.”

About 15 years ago, Gayes, who had been specializing in coastal geologic processes and change, also began studying the potential of wind energy in the Palmetto State. “I didn’t want to just categorize the demise of our planet,” Gayes says. “I wanted to contribute to efforts to reduce mounting pressures on our coastal system and society, as well as drive towards a more integrated, systems approach to coastal science and management.”

It’s important for climate-resilience planning efforts and mitigation projects to emphasize possible co-benefits and thus “build synergy,” Gayes says. Examples can range from windfarm aquaculture to bold solutions that address increased flooding risks, while also providing green space for recreation.

Overall, Gayes is hopeful when he looks to the future because many people are thinking about climate resilience and adaptation, and “are having the conversations that in the past they didn’t want to talk about.”

“This is an important cultural change,” Gayes adds. Further, the issues will become even more pressing for residents and leaders alike, as both sunny-day tidal flooding and the effects of more extreme storms illustrate the future costs of not implementing climate-resilience planning.

Adapting to the New Normal in Conway

The number of intense rainfall events is increasing across the southeastern U.S., according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Days with three or more inches of rain, by decade, has reached historic highs since the 1980s. As temperatures continue to rise, due to climate change, air will hold more water vapor, resulting in increasingly frequent “rain bombs” throughout the year. For each degree of warming, the air’s capacity for water vapor goes up by about seven percent.

“An atmosphere with more moisture can produce more intense precipitation events, which is exactly what has been observed,” according to the national, nonpartisan Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

In the historic river city of Conway, “flooding has become the new normal,” says City Administrator Adam Emrick. For decades, many areas of the small city of about 25,000 – which is next to the meandering Waccamaw River and sits at the southern terminus of the Kingston Lake Watershed – have flooded. But over the past decade, the number of significant flood events has shattered historic records.

During Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina in September 2018, intense precipitation fell and floodwaters funneled down the Waccamaw River and the Kingston Lake Watershed, flooding more than 100 roads and many homes in Conway. According to news reports, the U.S. National Guard and City of Conway Fire Department crews had to make a dozen rescues in the suburban neighborhood of Long Avenue, which borders the Crabtree Canal before it winds into the Waccamaw River.

Outside of hurricane season, more frequent and intense rainstorms bring flash flooding throughout the small city.

Officials here, however, are focusing on mitigation plans in an attempt to adapt to the “new normal.”

One initiative would filter up to seven million gallons of stormwater through an engineered “Carolina Bay” wetland. Carolina Bays are natural depressions that pepper the Atlantic coast of the southeastern U.S. The bays are boggy, open ecosystems. In South Carolina, these unique habitats are home to a variety of plants, such as the Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava), the Loblolly bay, and sweet bay trees that grow around its edges. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Earth Observatory, Carolina Bays are a relic of the last ice age, as seasonal freezing and thawing of permafrost created landscapes with elliptical-shaped lakes and scattered ridges. While these ecosystems can be found on the coastal plain from Florida to Delaware, they are situated primarily in Georgia and South Carolina.

The engineered Carolina Bay project is intended to alleviate major flooding in the Crabtree Canal that caused the Long Avenue neighborhood’s flooding during Hurricane Florence. In December 2020, the city of Conway applied for a grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities program to construct the project, which the city is planning in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Utilizing previous FEMA funding, the city purchased 15 residential parcels that had experienced repetitive flooding, and plans to purchase five more parcels, Emrick says, which would create a total of seven acres for the constructed wetland.

The project would be the first of its kind in the state, but Emrick hopes the city can plan more of these wetland basins to address flooding problems and direct excess water.

Conway Deputy City Administrator Mary Catherine Hyman, who is collaborating with Emrick on flood mitigation and stormwater goals for the city, is proud of another effort called a “Conservation Subdivision” ordinance. This ordinance encourages developers to build in the uplands and use low-impact development (LID) philosophies. LID is an alternative site design strategy that uses natural and engineered infiltration and storage techniques to control stormwater where it falls.

Developers who opt into the incentive program are allowed to build to a slightly higher density, while agreeing to implement these alternative design strategies and set aside greater natural buffers.

“We have a few developments in the conceptual phase,” says Hyman. “Hopefully some of those will break ground in the next few years.”

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Unique Habitats. The small city of Conway hopes to filter up to seven million gallons of stormwater through a Carolina Bay. These wetland ecosystems are home to a variety of plants, such as the Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava), the Loblolly bay, and sweet bay trees that grow around its edges. Photo by Wade Spees.

Model Projects Mimic Natural Hydrology

Across the Lowcountry, model low-impact development (LID) projects are keeping stormwater at bay.

A perimeter of pervious pavers lines the main parking lot of the Rivertowne Harris Teeter in Mount Pleasant, S.C., allowing rainwater to soak directly into the ground. This plaza was also engineered with a bioretention swale, or thicketed area designed to filter contaminants.

On James Island, a development of nine homes called Fox Hollow has no pipes to direct rainfall, because stormwater is routed into engineered wetlands. Replacing stormwater ponds, the wetlands and bioretention areas are lined with vegetation, such as yaupon holly, bald cypress, and juncus, which filter and remove pollutants.

Projects such as these two examples of low-impact development will become increasingly common across the Lowcountry, as developers are faced with designing plans to intercept and treat stormwater runoff and filter pollutants that would otherwise flow into watersheds.

Both the Rivertowne Harris Teeter and Fox Hollow developments have been successful in another regard. They prevented flooding during recent, major rain events, absorbing large amounts of rain into the ground or releasing it into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration.

“With low-impact design, you try to mimic the natural hydrology,” says Joshua Robinson of Robinson Design Engineers, the engineering partner for the Fox Hollow development. “You slow down the movement of water with vegetation so it can filter into the soils.”

Robinson believes the techniques – combined with prioritized placement of development in appropriate areas based on elevation, soil type, and topography – will reduce the overall amount of runoff, especially in rapidly developing areas. “Thirty years out, if we continue doing the same thing we have been doing, a very large portion of the areas we live will be flooded constantly,” Robinson says.

Local governments and homeowners alike are beginning to realize the importance of innovative stormwater management. In Conway, Hyman believes that prospective buyers will be drawn to developments that incorporate LID designs to address stormwater flow, especially in the wake of recent flooding events.

Starting in 2017, a collaborative effort among Beaufort and Jasper counties, as well as the municipalities of Beaufort, Bluffton, Hardeeville, Port Royal, and Yemassee, led to a brandnew proposed stormwater design ordinance and manual. The ordinance and manual received final approval and became effective in Beaufort County in early 2021. (The town of Bluffton will hold a public hearing and final reading on August 10, 2021. Other partner jurisdictions have not set their timetables for adoption yet.) The manual takes a holistic approach to watershed-wide stormwater planning and incorporates LID techniques in development guidelines. The public-workshop phase to finalize the model ordinance and design manual wrapped up just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing the local governments to shift to a mainly digital approach during the adoption process.

In Bluffton alone, the final workshops to review and approve the stormwater manual were watched online more than 6,000 times by residents. Kimberly Jones, Watershed Management Division manager with the town of Bluffton, says having the different discussions streamed, and archived, online made the conversation more accessible for residents; furthermore, the number of views also illustrates the importance of regional waterway issues. “The waterways around here are just so intricately tied to everyone’s life,” says Jones.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Mitigation Strategies. In the Fox Hollow subdivision on James Island, this pervious parking area allows stormwater to soak directly into the ground. Wetlands and bioretention areas also filter and direct rainwater throughout the small neighborhood of nine homes. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Nature-Based Flood Insurance

The 152-acre Westmoreland Preserve, adjacent to the Waccamaw River in Conway, is an example of a smaller, strategic land-conservation project.

Its acquisition is key to furthering the Conway Conservation Corridor, a network of conserved lands that is intended to mitigate excess water in the wake of extensive flooding events and provide passive recreational opportunities for the community. The tract of floodplain forest and wetlands will help protect nearby communities by “soaking up water like a sponge,” says Maria Whitehead, South Carolina program director for the Open Space Institute (OSI), which spearheaded the purchase of the property in a unique partnership with the Winyah Rivers Alliance, Westmoreland landowners, and the city of Conway.

“They’ve had tremendous flooding in the last several years in Conway,” Whitehead says.

In the face of climate change, both large- and small-scale land-conservation projects can have compounding benefits – especially as a natural bulwark against impacts such as extreme storms, Whitehead says. In addition to flooding, scientists predict seasonal droughts, warming temperatures, and shifting habitats over time, as a result of a changing climate. In preparation for this overwhelming uncertainty, smart conservation is an effective way to save wildlife and help communities adapt, Whitehead says.

A short distance to the north of the Westmoreland tract, another parcel of conserved land borders the Waccamaw River. In 2015, The Nature Conservancy purchased 494 acres along the river. The two projects, which keep mature floodplain forest and wetlands intact, will hold and filter large amounts of water during flood events. Mature forested lands close to homes also mitigate the impacts of flooding by slowing and buffering the velocity of fast-moving water.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Forested Wetland. The 152-acre Westmoreland Preserve property is a forested parcel adjacent to the Waccamaw River. Its 2019 acquisition is a key aspect of an effort to mitigate flooding. The preserve is home to a myriad of animal and plant species, including the barred owl and swallow-tailed kite. Photo by Mac Stone.
Whitehead points to a study, published in 2019 in the Journal of South Carolina Water Resources, that shows protected land slowed and attenuated the flood waters during Hurricane Florence before they reached the Georgetown area, keeping water levels there below predicted levels. While the study focused on the extensive protected wetlands of the Woodbury Wildlife Management Area and Heritage Preserve, smaller, strategic natural gateways can create a defense that helps buffer communities from storms, Whitehead says.

In addition to flood mitigation, the Westmoreland tract provides important habitat for animals listed as South Carolina priority species, such as the shortnose sturgeon and the swallow-tailed kite, which nests in the mature trees of forested wetlands. Such inland-situated habitat will become crucial as forests located closer to the coast experience rising salinity levels due to accelerating sea-level rise. Whitehead, an ornithologist and graduate of Clemson University’s Forest Resource Ph.D. program, has seen some of the kites’ nesting sites becoming ghost forests, with large trees dying due to saltwater intrusion. As these forests along the coast are impacted by increasing salinity, preserved land further inland will provide a “pathway for ecosystems to move in the face of climate change,” she says.

Over the past five years, northeastern U.S.-based OSI has preserved 23,936 acres across South Carolina, including spearheading an effort to preserve a 1,000-acre expansion of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge and a 328-acre tract on both sides of Timothy Creek, which connects via Four Holes Swamp to the Edisto River – the longest undammed blackwater river in North America and a drinking water source for Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties.

Conserved lands along undammed rivers, such as the Waccamaw and the Edisto, have yet another benefit: sediment-rich wetlands would ensure sediments flow downstream, thus helping salt marshes grow and adapt to sea-level rise and erosion.

Whitehead sees more public interest and collaboration with partners as a bright spot in the future. “We have seen the encouraging trend of land conservation groups working together and bringing in municipalities as partners,” she says. “This trend will help the land conservation groups understand our role in protecting the built environment, and help municipalities think about how natural environments help protect them.”

Land conservation will continue to be an important goal across the state. Conservation groups here have made progress, Whitehead says, “but there is still work to do.”

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Green Progress. The Open Space Institute has preserved 23,936 acres across South Carolina. Map by Kae Yamane, Open Space Institute.

More Extreme Rains Impact Coastal Ecology

From 2018 to 2020, two researchers used geospatial modeling to estimate the impacts of more intense rain bombs on overall estuarine water quality in the state’s coastal counties.

Andrew Tweel, a coastal ecologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and College of Charleston graduate student Lloyd Hill conducted the research.

“Two inches in an hour creates a lot more runoff than two inches over the course of a day,” Tweel says.

Tweel and Hill’s research shows that these heavier rain bombs cause an increase in both the volume of runoff and the levels of contaminants, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, fecal coliform, pesticides, and nutrients, flowing from developed areas of the watershed into tidal creeks and marshes.

Elevated levels of some of these contaminants stayed in watersheds downstream for a longer duration after more extreme rains during winter months. There are two possible explanations for this scenario. During the winter months, there is typically less vegetation and tree cover in the uplands to slow runoff – through the processes of filtration and evapotranspiration – as well as lower microbe activity in wetland soils that would otherwise naturally break down contaminants during warmer months.

Tweel hopes to continue to study the relationship between land use and estuarine environmental quality under a range of different weather and climate possibilities. One conclusion has become clear thus far: communities, stormwater and resource managers, and scientists will have to plan for the impacts of increased rain events. Consistent maintenance of stormwater ponds, and the implementation of new LID techniques, such as those being incentivized in Conway, would go a long way to helping handle more rainwater.

The key, Tweel believes, is to “be adaptive and flexible.” This flexibility will be important when addressing a variety of challenges – including rising sea level, increased rainfall, and the impacts of future development on natural resources and infrastructure.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Estuarine Health. Norm Shea, a biologist at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, deploys a data logger in Seaside Creek on James Island. The logger measured salinity, depth, and temperature during a large storm event in December 2018. Photo by Andrew Tweel, S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
Experts agree that planning documents – such as Beaufort and Jasper counties’ new, regional stormwater design manual – will need to be drafted in a way that allows modification over the next few years. That document was written to easily allow for appropriate updates, based on analysis and review. “Once we roll these standards out, over the next 30 years, this will regularly be re-visited to see how it is working, how it isn’t working, and how it needs to be tweaked,” says Jones, the Watershed Management Division manager with the town of Bluffton. Looking ahead, it’s not just government and stormwater planners who will need to be flexible; scientists and professors, conservation leaders, developers, architects, elected officials, community advocates, and the public will have to accept variability as they collaborate and embrace innovation to address the most challenging issues of the region.

Gayes, the professor at Coastal Carolina University, points to the important role innovators and officials played as they stepped up to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to bring medical advances and address problems along the way.

In a similar fashion, Gayes believes a number of leaders, researchers, and innovators within coastal communities will bring bright ideas to the effort to address the major challenges of the next few decades in coastal South Carolina. “There is a lot of good work going on,” Gayes says. “We will see all kinds of innovation.”

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Flyway. American oystercatchers fly above Kiawah Island. South Carolina is a crucial wintering area for the Atlantic subspecies of this bird. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Sidebar

State Resilience Office to Prepare for Coastal Erosion, Flooding, and Extreme Weather

On October 13, 2020, Governor Henry McMaster held a ceremonial signing event in Charleston to commemorate the passage of a law establishing the South Carolina Office of Resilience.

“I think this office will be very important,” says Tom Mullikin, chairman of the South Carolina Floodwater Commission. “There is so much to do.” The Office of Resilience arose as a recommendation from the state Floodwater Commission, which Governor McMaster convened in 2018, and Mullikin believes the new agency will shoulder a role of global leadership as it implements a variety of strategies to address coastal erosion, flooding, and extreme weather from more powerful hurricanes.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Urgent Issues. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster speaks during a ceremonial signing event for the Disaster Relief and Resilience Act at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Photo by Susan Ferris Hill, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.
The Office of Resilience arose as a recommendation from the state Floodwater Commission, which Governor McMaster convened in 2018, and Mullikin believes the new agency will shoulder a role of global leadership as it implements a variety of strategies to address coastal erosion, flooding, and extreme weather from more powerful hurricanes.

The trend of sea-level rise and changes in weather patterns will not abate, Mullikin says, and the office will initiate projects to help ensure South Carolina is in the “best possible position” to adapt to climate change-related issues. The S.C. Sea Grant Consortium is a member of the Office of Resilience Advisory Committee.

“It doesn’t take much sea-level rise to alter our shorelines,” says Mullikin, an environmental lawyer and a research professor at Coastal Carolina University. “Much of downtown Charleston could be under water in 40 years.” The issues related to climate change, however, reach further than the coast, he says, and points to the increased flooding of inland rivers and tributaries – including in the state’s Midlands – due to more intense rain events and storms.

In March 2021, Governor McMaster nominated Ben Duncan, program director of the state’s Disaster Recovery Office, to lead the newly created Office of Resilience. Duncan was confirmed by the state Senate on April 7.

In July, the Office of Resilience, which is a cabinet-level, gubernatorial agency, began a large-scale planning effort. That effort includes the creation of a strategic statewide resilience and risk-reduction plan. “This is a statewide plan, so there are various issues that we would be concerned with and focused on,” says Duncan.

In addition, the office will be outlining risks related to flooding in the state’s eight watersheds, investigating potential solutions to sea-level rise along the coastline, partnering with universities on pertinent research, and leading a revolving loan fund designed to provide local governments with funding to perform flooded home buyouts and floodplain restoration.

Sidebar

Where History and Climate Change Converge

The Phillips Community Cemetery is tucked behind the newer homes of the RiverTowne Country Club. The small cemetery, which has graves dating back to the late-19th century, is the final resting place of generations of freed men and women and their descendants from the Phillips Community, including a Civil War veteran of the Union’s United States Colored Infantry.

“My great grandfather and great grandmother and grandmother are buried here,” says Habersham.

Between a small subdivision pocket park and the marsh, and accessed by a boardwalk and unmarked path, it has now become overgrown, and only three headstones remain. The cemetery is largely unknown outside of the Phillips Community. It is also a slice of land where history and the uncertainty of climate change are converging.

Rising tides have left black rings on the pines, as saltwater swamps more of the trees and flows closer to the burial site.

Habersham worries that the gravesites are vulnerable to the rising tides.

The cemetery is located a few miles from Phillips, but it is the final resting place for many of its early residents. Overlooking a wide expanse of Horlbeck Creek, it was once the perfect spot for a cemetery based on African American burial practices of former slaves in the Reconstruction Era. Situating gravesites close to water was an important burial tradition in Gullah/Geechee culture.

“They could not return home to Africa, but their spirit could,” Habersham says.

Pedestrians and a horse carriage in front of the flooded market.
Almost Forgotten. The Phillips Community Cemetery has graves dating back to the late-19th century, including that of Benjamin Bennett, a Civil War veteran of the Union’s United States Colored Infantry. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.
Gravesites were also sometimes marked with bleached seashells to honor this connection to the water. Shells took on a special meaning for many Gullah residents. “The sea brought us, the sea shall take us back” was a Gullah sentiment from a woman on St. Simons Island, Georgia, as quoted in The Gullah People and Their African Heritage.

Benjamin Bennett lived in the Phillips Community, and he is buried in the cemetery. His headstone survives and recognizes his service in Company A of the 128th brigade of the United States Colored Infantry, which fought for the Union in the Civil War. The last two remaining headstones mark the final resting places of John Ernest Watson, 1896-1918, and Daniel Jerman, 1832-1901.

These African American cemeteries are often inaccessible, undocumented, and rarely recognized as environmental justice concerns, until now, according to a January 2021 report in Environmental Justice.

As for the Phillips cemetery, it was documented during the archeological survey conducted as part of the development of RiverTowne, Habersham says. Further, it is likely to become the subject of a much more in-depth documentation soon. The cemetery is a major aspect of the community’s application for classification in the National Register of Historic Places. It is an important site in that application, which would help document and preserve the culturally significant places in the Phillips Community.

From Louisiana to North Carolina, historic African American heritage sites throughout the Southeast, such as cemeteries, are increasingly threatened by climate change, including annual flooding.

Reading and Websites

Beckingham, B., Callahan, T., and Vulava, V., “Stormwater Ponds in the Southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain: Hydrogeology, Contaminant Fate, and the Need for a Social-Ecological Framework” In Frontiers in Environmental Science, July 24, 2019.

Burroughs, F. The River Home: A Return to the Carolina Low Country. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

Butler, C.R. Lowcountry at High Tide: A History of Flooding, Drainage, and Reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2020.

Charleston County Historic Resources Survey 2016 update. Charleston County Zoning and Planning Department, North Charleston, S.C.

Charleston Peninsula Coastal Flood Risk Management Study. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District.

City of Conway, OSI, and WRA Protect 152 Acres of Waccamaw River Floodplain for Climate Resilience and Recreation. City of Conway.

Cotti-Rausch, B.E., Majidzadeh, H., and DeVoe, M.R., eds., Stormwater Ponds in Coastal South Carolina: 2019 State of Knowledge Full Report. Charleston, S.C.: S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, 2020.

Downs, G.P., and Masur, K. The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study. Washington, D.C.: The National Historical Landmarks Program, National Park Service, 2017.

Dutch Dialogues Charleston: Vision and Final Report.

Ellis, K., Berg, C., Caraco, D., Drescher, S., Hoffmann, G., Keppler, B., LaRocco, M., and Turner, A. Low Impact Development in Coastal South Carolina: A Planning and Design Guide. ACE Basin and North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserves, 2014.

Fourth National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program.

Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. National Park Service.

Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Hurricane Florence Flooding in Georgetown County: A Qualitative Explanation of the Interactions of Estuary and Tidal River.” Journal of South Carolina Water Resources, Vol. 6, issue 1: 36-45.

Ice Age Carolinas. NASA Earth Observatory.

Natural Beauty of Fox Hollow. New Leaf Builders.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information State Climate Summaries: South Carolina.” NOAA Technical Report NESDIS, 2017.

Phillips Community. Town of Mount Pleasant Historical Commission.

Pollitzer W.S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1999.

Protecting the Palmetto State. Open Space Institute in South Carolina.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Conservation Plan. Atlantic Coast Joint Venture.

Santee Cooper GIS and Remote Sensing Laboratory and the Lowcountry Hazards Center at the College of Charleston.

Sea-Level Change Curve Calculator. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

South Carolina Activities and Wind Energy Call Areas. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Southern Lowcountry Stormwater Ordinance and Design Manual. Beaufort County Government.

Total Maximum Daily Load Determination for the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Intracoastal Water Way Near Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Biochemical Oxygen Demand. S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Vernberg, F.J. and Vernberg, W.B. The Coastal Zone: Past, Present, and Future. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.