Preserving a precious coastal resource
If you have a hole in your roof or a leak in your plumbing, the best solution is to fix it as quickly as you can. The same is true for the earthen dikes that must remain intact if former rice fields are to provide valuable coastal habitat.
When the tidal impoundments are damaged, the quicker that repairs can be made, the less chance they will lose their capacity to sustain those populations of birds and aquatic animals that thrive there.
That common-sense solution has long been recognized by owners of the historically managed wetlands. But until recently the thicket of related federal regulations have confounded any quick response. No more.
Since August, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved an expedited process for repairs, the general permit for repairs has been granted for more than 1,300 acres in Colleton County. More applications are anticipated.
The new rules allow property owners to properly maintain those wetlands, without having to go through a lengthy permitting process.
That means the tidal impoundments they own won’t be degraded as habitat while permission is sought to repair a breached dike or a water control device.
The Corps estimates there are 100 former rice plantations in Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry, Beaufort and Jasper counties. Total acreage of tidal impoundments is estimated at 80,000 acres, virtually all of which is maintained as habitat, particularly for migratory waterfowl. But it also provides feeding areas for threatened and endangered species including wood storks and bald eagles.
The shift in policy represents welcome federal recognition of the value of manged wetlands, long recognized by conservation organizations.
In making the change, the Corps has acknowledged that while maintenance or repairs frequently have only a minor effect on nearby waterways, permits have previously taken months to obtain.
The process of making those regulatory revisions involved plantation owners, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, the state Department of Natural Resources, the State Historic Preservation Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Corps.
Michael McShane, who served as chairman of the DNR commission when discussions commenced, credits the local Corps leadership for the effort to achieve a pragmatic solution to a problem largely limited to coastal South Carolina. It was accomplished under the direction of Lt. Col. Edward P. Chamberlayne.
Mr. McShane notes that the practical value of the regulatory change extends beyond habitat protection. Keeping managed wetlands intact also provides a buffer to adjacent upland areas. And that provides protection to coastal development from erosion and storms.
The process of revising the regulations took nearly two years to complete, but the long effort will be worth it. For generations, owners of historically managed wetlands have demonstrated their commitment to keeping this coastal resource intact.
The Corps’ regulatory shift is making their task far easier to achieve.