SEABROOK ISLAND — As Kiawah developers and environmentalists battle over Capt. Sam’s Spit, workers are gouging the cape beach that would otherwise be thronged by shorebirds.
Neighboring Seabrook Island is recutting the Kiawah River inlet through the beach for the third time in 30 years, a patchwork repair job considered so important to island real estate that it is called for in the management plan. Heavy duty equipment is piling sand in two long, intersecting berms that look like runways.
The work is expected to disrupt wildlife for at least a few years, including the feeding and nesting by species of concern such as red knots, least terns, oyster catchers, black skimmers, Wilson’s plovers and pelicans in one of the fewer remaining places where they thrive.
“There’s not a lot of other places for them to go. There’s only a little bit of open (nesting and feeding) space without humans and dogs trespassing all over it,” said Nathan Dias of Cape Romain Bird Observatory.
Recutting the inlet keeps portions of the Seabrook beach from being eroded by the inlet dynamics. The cut, essentially moving the shifting inlet back toward Kiawah Island proper, changes the flow of sand that runs in currents down the beach and allows more of that sand to settle on Seabrook.
Twice in the past, the inlet has been cut to do that. Before the first cut, erosion took so much of the Seabrook beach that island interests placed a rock revetment to stop high surf from slamming into homes — rocks that still can be seen jutting up through the sand.
The worst of the erosion takes place on the Seabrook Island’s far end from Capt. Sam’s, where the North Edisto River has cut nearly all the beach away from in front of the Beach Club, the island’s sole resort and a focus of tourism revenue.
The current recut first was permitted in 2013, but held up by a lawsuit from Bill Sansom, a property owner who said it was too soon, with the huge swath of sand and dunes between the ocean and his beachfront home. But in the two intervening years that apparently changed and the suit was dismissed in late 2014.
“The passage of time ... has accomplished the plaintiff’s objective of seeking a longer interval between projects,” the court order reads. Calls on Tuesday to the Seabrook Island Property Owners Association president and a call to its engineer were not returned by deadline.
The work is underway with a number of conditions attached to protect various bird, sea turtle and other species. It’s being conducted during sea turtle nesting season as the most appropriate option, rather than during the spring or fall bird migration or winter feeding and resting season, said Jennifer Koches of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It must be completed by Aug. 15, she said.
The work cuts into a least tern nesting sanctuary and extends to a knob of riverbank that is a focus of rare dolphin “strand feeding” behavior, where the mammals work in a group to corral fish, force them to leap ashore then leap after them to eat.
“There’s huge trucks. There were no birds. The place is just cleared out. I only saw one dolphin all day with all this commotion going on,” said Gene Gebhard of West Ashley, who kayaked to the cape beach on Memorial Day where work was underway.
Meanwhile, the nearest place the birds could move to is across the river inlet to the Seabrook beach.
“Seabrook has off-leash dogs that chase them and more (human) activity,” said Dias, who testified in the court hearing before the case was dismissed. “It’s sad. It’s really disappointing.”
Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this story contained an error.
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