A special report prepared by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and the Coastal Conservation League.
South Carolina’s coastline has attracted people from near and far. The sandy beaches and the ocean draw people in, but our desire to be close to the beach has, over time, led us to make decisions that put the very things that make our shoreline valuable – wide stretches of clean sandy beaches – at risk, as well as people, structures and wildlife.
This wasn’t always the case in South Carolina. Historically, the beach was a place that you visited for recreation and reprieve, but not a place where you built houses. Beachfront property, and barrier islands in particular, had a relatively low value because their dynamic nature made them unsuitable for building.
But over time, small beach cottages without heat or air were built for families from the Upstate and Midlands to enjoy during the summer months. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 marked a turning point, where many small beach cottages were destroyed, and new, large and expensive beach houses were constructed in their place. The trend toward large, expensive houses on or near the beach has continued since then, and management and maintenance of the shoreline with such structures has similarly become larger and more expensive.
Management of our shoreline is governed by the South Carolina Coastal Zone Management Act. In passing the Act, the General Assembly found that “increasing and competing demands upon the lands and waters of our coastal zone occasioned by...residential development,...have resulted in the decline or loss of living marine resources, wildlife, nutrient-rich areas, permanent and adverse changes to ecological systems, decreasing open space for public use and shoreline erosion.” As a result, the Act directs the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to “protect and, where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the State’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations.”
Yet balancing the desire to have a house on the beach with protecting the shoreline system has been exceedingly challenging and is further complicated by rising sea levels and eroding beaches.
The state has responded to these threats primarily through beach renourishment, which is considered a “soft solution,” however, hard structures such as groins and seawalls are being sought with increasing frequency as erosion and sea level rise increase. Technology new to South Carolina and experimental devices are also being considered.
The following report (download below) provides additional information on beachfront development; jurisdictional lines; groins; seawalls; breakwaters; geotubes; and renourishment, particularly in the context of eroding shorelines, sea level rise and more frequent and powerful storm events.
But ultimately, protection of structures on the shoreline will become a financial and physical impossibility. For that reason, the management decisions we make today regarding shoreline management will have a major impact on the health of our shoreline and the coastal ecosystem for this and future generations.