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Folly Beach erosion calls for more beach renourishment

South Carolina beaches are beautiful and highly popular among tourists.

Charleston’s Folly Beach is no exception.

But like many beaches on the East Coast, Folly has experienced problems with coastal erosion and has spent a lot of time and money trying to manage it through beach renourishment.

The proposed Recommended Plan for beach renourishment at Folly Beach is detailed in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Draft Environmental Assessment, which includes a 5.1-mile main dune and berm combination beach fill with expected annual costs estimated at $4.63 million.

Why coastal erosion is a problem

Coastal erosion refers to the removal and displacement of land and material, such as sand, from a shoreline.

Dr. Leslie Sautter, geology and environmental geosciences professor at the College of Charleston, describes coastal erosion as where wave or tide energy has removed material from a shoreline.

“​​Shoreline erosion is usually due to waves but also from tides to some degree,” Sautter said. “And certainly storms cause a tremendous amount of erosion but that’s usually due to larger waves.”

Laura Renwick at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says that rising sea levels, storms, and sand resources are among the many reasons why South Carolina beaches experience erosion.

The City of Folly Beach claims that the main cause of erosion is from “the Charleston harbor jetties that block the flow of sand from north to south along the coast.”

Coastal erosion is inevitable and Sautter describes it as “a very natural process.”

It has been going on for a long time and now, even more with rising sea levels. The EPA also discusses how beaches erode as sea levels rise. The higher the water level is, the more likely it is for storm waves to wash over a barrier island and create erosion.

“One of my colleagues, Orin Pilkey, famously said that, ‘erosion was never a problem until people built on the shoreline, and that gave a location to measure and monitor the loss of the beach or the erosion of a beach, and that became a problem because that is somebody’s property,’” said Sautter.

It is very important to manage coastal erosion because erosion and rising sea level can harm and damage habitats. Erosion causes the beach to retreat towards the forests.

Sautter explained that many of these habitats “cannot survive living right on the beach” and can’t tolerate the salt in the air, so they lose their habitats.

Beach renourishment and its benefits

Beach renourishment is a way to help manage the effects of coastal erosion by keeping a dry beach and providing better storm protection for the island.

The process of beach renourishment mainly benefits the properties on the coast such as homes and parks. It also helps to keep up recreational beach access and animal and plant habitats.

“(It’s important) to keep up with mother natures’ removal of sediments, the sands and particles on a shoreline,” explained Sautter. “So if mother nature is removing it through the natural processes of waves and rising sea level and sometimes tides, then to maintain a property, we have to do something and there are several solutions to this.”

Beach renourishment is one of the many ways to combat coastal erosion and is considered a “soft” solution to protecting a coastline. Soft solutions are natural and many people consider them to be the best way to protect properties.

“Beach renourishment activities provide for a soft solution to beach erosion by bringing sand resources onshore to reshape and structure the beach face,” said Renwick.

Folly Beach has had a problem with coastal erosion for many years and has been studying and investing in renourishment projects since 1979. Since then, there have been many projects done to try and stop the erosion from getting too bad. There are a lot of different solutions and ways to manage erosion and Sautter explains that “they all have problems with them.”

Folly Beach currently has a planned 50-year project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers where they will be taking sand from two offshore borrow sources and one riverine borrow source. The sand will then be transported to Folly beach through a pipeline.

When it comes to beach renourishment, many factors come into play, so there are many considerations involved in implementing a project, including the cost and the sand resources.

Emily Cezdo, the land, water and wildlife senior program director with the Coastal Conservation League, noted the importance of looking at the timing and location of these projects.

For example, she said a renourishment project between May and October has to consider the incidental impacts on sea turtles because it is nesting season and they could be killed.

“The time frames in which these projects take place is really important to us because oftentimes, you might be dredging or actually pumping sand on the beach during turtle nesting season or hatching season. You might also be doing some of that work during Right whales’ migratory season,” Cezdo explained. “So, it's sort of just making sure that they're doing these projects, to the best of their ability, at the best time of year.”

Drawbacks of renourishment projects

Renourishment projects are carefully considered and evaluated in terms of minimizing risk and negative effects on the environment.

Cezdo says that at the Coastal Conservation League, they look at and evaluate proposed projects, like the one for Folly Beach, to make sure the project is environmentally responsible.

While Cezdo believes that beach renourishment is our best and softest solution compared to other shoreline stabilization methods, there are still some drawbacks.

“Oftentimes it's really difficult to fully avoid impacts to wildlife,” Cezdo said. “So that's certainly a drawback.”

The equipment and lighting used in these renourishment projects are sitting on the beaches and can disrupt sea turtles when they are coming up to nest and when hatchlings are trying to make it to the ocean. The beach renourishment itself can also disrupt the living organisms on the beach.

“Anytime you're pumping up this sort of sand, it's artificial,” Cezdo explained. “So you're kind of drowning out the smaller organisms that would be on the beach, and impacting the food chain a bit.”

While renourishment is a good soft solution to coastal erosion, it still doesn’t solve the problem of erosion.

There are things to consider when doing renourishment projects, such as where the borrow sites are, how much money is being put into it, how the beach will react to new sand and to the project and how long a solution is going to last.

No matter what solution Folly Beach uses to manage erosion, there will always be issues and they will need to keep doing it.

“I think in general, anyone who puts the money out for renourishment, the soft solution, they have to recognize that sand is not going to stay,” said Sautter. “Whatever processes were eroding the beach to begin with, any new sand you put on is also going to be eroded and removed.”

With these re-nourishment projects, they have spent millions of dollars and have succeeded in maintaining public beach access and beachfront properties. The renourishment project in 2014 cost $30 million.

Folly Beach, however, has a federal contract, so a big portion of the money for renourishment is paid for by the federal government. Another interesting thing to consider in terms of the cost is that Folly Beach generates $37 in return for every $1 invested in beach restoration.

“So, that's the balancing act. Is it worth putting in the money knowing you're gonna have to do it on some kind of cycle? You know, is it worth the investment and clearly, Folly Beach has said it’s worth the investment, but it's the taxpayers paying, it's not the people who live on that front beach who are reaping the benefits of all renourishment,” explained Sautter.

Cezdo talks about how Folly Beach is very committed to “trying to hold that line in the sand.” While they want to manage the erosion, she expresses concern about the reality of the situation regarding climate impacts.

The activity of renourishment could give people who live in beach communities a “false sense of security,” because they will think this level of erosion management will be going on forever.

“More and more communities need to be talking about, you know, potentially trying to figure out more manage retreat programs, where, in the future, we're actually talking about moving people as opposed to just holding that line for forever,” said Cezdo.

A Professor at Coastal Carolina University, Paul T. Gayes, told The Post and Courier that he has concerns that these projects, which are meant to last a while, are not having the lasting impact that they used to and believes they are happening too often.

“If you look at the last many years, we’re not seeing that play out as well as it had been,” Gayes said.

These soft solutions will certainly manage the erosion, but in order to maintain the beaches, they will have to continue to do these costly projects. The worse the erosion gets, the more expensive the renourishment projects get, and they will have to be done more frequently.

Cezdo explains the importance of managing expectations when it comes to erosion and that people should understand that the coastlines are only becoming more vulnerable.

“I think the question is, is renourishment going to be the long-term solution that we think it is?” says Cezdo. “Or do we need to think about other ways to help protect coastal communities?”

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Jan 30, 2023

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