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Groundwater and Infrastructure in Beaufort County Focus of $300K Grant

Mar 10, 2022

In collaboration with the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and a multidisciplinary team of scientists, Beaufort County recently launched a study called “Beaufort County Adapts: Sea Level Impacts Beneath Our Feet”. The team is taking steps to analyze how sea-level rise may negatively impact underground infrastructure and groundwater in order to lessen the potential impacts.

The effects of sea-level rise seen above ground, such as flooding, are commonly discussed and planned for, but the impact of sea-level rise on local groundwater has not been thoroughly examined. Citizens may be most familiar with groundwater because many people rely on wells for water, yet buried infrastructure, such as septic and sewage systems, may also be impacted. In addition to changing the water table height, sea-level rise can increase the amount of salt in the groundwater. The combined changes can affect drainage, agriculture, natural forests and infrastructure stability.

Aerial view of Beaufort, South Carolina, showing houses and the ocean.

“Our County has invested heavily in improving our climate resiliency in the face of anticipated rising sea levels by preventing and mitigating the impacts of flooding,” said Planning and Zoning Director Rob Merchant. “This study will better prepare us for what’s happening underneath our feet, below the ground, so that we can gain additional important tools for our kit to improve resiliency and combat the effects of rising sea levels.”

The two-year study is made possible by a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office to the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium. Working on the study is a team of social- and natural-resources scientists from the University of South Carolina, College of Charleston, S.C. Department of Natural Resources, as well as mapping experts and community engagement specialists at the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and specialists from Beaufort County’s planning division.

“Groundwater is often overlooked in discussions of sea-level rise, but we really do see groundwater issues cropping up along the South Carolina coastline,” said Alicia Wilson, a groundwater hydrologist at the University of South Carolina’s School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment. “We appreciate the opportunity to work with Beaufort County residents to begin monitoring groundwater levels and collecting information that will allow us to understand this problem more fully.”

The study will focus on small communities within Beaufort County that need targeted efforts to enhance their ability to withstand the impacts of sea-level rise on groundwater levels and underground infrastructure. The research team will collaborate with community members and the Beaufort County planning division on the siting and monitoring of 10 groundwater wells and how to use the results to develop and implement sea-level rise adaptation measures.

The monitoring wells, which measure groundwater levels, will be installed in discrete locations in several communities during the spring of 2022. Scientists will collect water-height measurements from a datalogger every three months and then model the projected impacts of sea-level rise on groundwater conditions and municipal infrastructure.

When the study is completed, Beaufort County communities will have specific recommendations for how to avoid system-level failures before they occur and local municipalities will be equipped with data to inform strategies and policy decisions.