BY CHRIS DIXON
Last month, I went surfing at the Folly Beach Washout with local surf legend Glenn Tanner. As we exited the waves and climbed over the massive dredging pipe feeding Folly's latest sand replenishment project, Tanner counted the steps to reach the Washout's contest shack. Shaking his head, he said, "The last time they did this in 2005, it took 102 steps at high tide. This time, it only took 51."
In the wake of last week's long nor'easter, that commute is even shorter.
As a journalist, I've covered coastal erosion issues for The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and Surfer magazine from San Diego to Surf City, N.J., to Emerald Isle, N.C., and Juno Beach, Fla. As a lifelong surfer, I've watched with alarm and outrage as s homeowners dumped boulders along my beloved Folly shoreline. Like Tanner and other local surfers and homeowners, I was thus hopeful that, armed with lessons from the past, Folly's $30 million dredging/renourishment project would:
1. At least temporarily restore some of the beach - particularly at Folly's northern edge.
2. Provide new sand to be sculpted into a dune line that could then be planted with sand-anchoring vegetation
3. Cover up boulder piles laid down by Folly's desperate homeowners.
None of this has happened. Instead, this project, with its water-filled swales, exposed rocks, and vanishing sand, is a fiasco that eclipses the 2009 dredging of live artillery onto the beach during a project in Surf City, N.J.
There will be plenty of future blame - and perhaps lawsuits over all this - but with dredging equipment still in position, the immediate question is: Can anything save this sand project before the summer's first tropical storm? The answer is, perhaps.
On our barrier islands, primary ocean currents sweep sand and sediment down the beaches from north to south, eroding islands at their northern ends and accreting their southern ends. For dramatic examples, consider the homes blocking our beaches at Folly's northern end, the perennially threatened Seascape condos on the Isle of Palms, or the Boneyard on undeveloped Bull Island. If you walked down Folly prior to this latest replenishment you would have noticed that there was more and more beach the farther south you went. Today, this is true - particularly at Folly Beach County Park, where a huge pile of pipes pump even more dredge onto an already wide beach - exactly where it's not needed.
Rather than pumping more sand on Folly's relatively broad southern beaches, the town, surfers, beachgoers and taxpayers would be far better served if the sand remaining in this year's contract was used to return Folly's northern end back to something approximating the 2005 project and Glenn Tanner's 102 steps. Thus, in an ideal world, Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin would politely ask Army Corps' project manager Wes Wilson to turn his machinery around. Barring that, an emergency injunction on federal disaster designation should be considered - which could trigger emergency funds for more sand before all the dredging equipment sails away. Of course, even that sand wouldn't last forever. Longshore currents will invariably carry it south to protect Folly's southern shores, and eventually Bird Key. But in the near term it would marginally protect Folly's most threatened homes and beaches while giving Goodwin, homeowners, the Corps and Charleston itself time to discuss some new and more cost-effective solutions to an age-old problem exacerbated by storm, sea-level rise, and the Charleston Harbor jetties.
Ultimately, Folly and long-beleaguered Morris Island simply need more sand in the longshore system. Ocean swells and pounding waves naturally filter sediment, leaving clean sand grains on the beach and keeping muck offshore. Future sand replenishment money might be thus better spent removing the Charleston Harbor jetties entirely, dredging the shipping channel outside the harbor more often and dumping that spoil southward so that it can be slowly filtered onto our beaches. Another solution could mirror Florida's Palm Beach Inlet, where a pump house carries sand from Palm Beach Shores beneath the inlet channel southward where swells push it onto Palm Beach Island. And finally, consider our dredge spoil sites like Drum Island. Every time I drive the Ravenel Bridge, I look down and ask, why is all that dredge going onto that island when at least some of it (the stuff determined not to be polluted) could be dumped off Morris Island to naturally sift down to our shoreline? Before the jetties, that's how harbor sediment was flushed out into the littoral system. That's partly why the Morris Island Lighthouse was once part of a high dune system and also helps explain why Cape Romain is washing away. Damming the Santee River has choked off eons of sediment flow.
The idealist in me hopes that one day, logic will prevail and all of Folly's threatened beachfront homes will be replaced by sand dunes and sea oats. But the reality is that Folly is already dramatically altered and it's too important to Charleston's beach lovers, tax coffers and surfers, to suffer the same fate as Rodanthe Beach on Cape Hatteras, where homes are falling into the sea and there is no public beach left. I like to think that the most forward thinking metropolitan area on the East Coast is up to the task of solving this daunting issue.
In the meantime, is it too late to ask the Army Corps to turn their tractors around?
Chris Dixon is a local journalist and author of "Ghost Wave, The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth."