FOLLY BEACH -- Only a thin lip of sand stands between the next big storm and a complete overwash of the closed county park. And the winter nor'easter season hasn't really begun to blow.
The danger is immediate that the popular beach destination could be lost or left a smaller shell of what it was.
A scarp line of sand is now some 30 feet behind the walkover boardwalks that had crossed the dunes before erosion from Hurricane Irene in August ate into them and closed Folly Beach County Park. The restroom building that used to stand at the edge of the main parking lot is gone. The lot, sitting on a narrow strip of sand, could be swept by storm waves and tide.
The erosion could undermine the only real high ground accessible by the park's sole road entrance.
"We're very concerned. It's really on the verge of overwash," said Tom O'Rourke, Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission executive director.
"Once you lose the dunes it doesn't take a big storm to overwash. I don't think there's any question they could lose some additional land that's critical to get to the parking lots," said Tim Kana, president of Coastal Science & Engineering in Columbia, who toured the site in October.
The fix that parks officials are now pursuing is the one that regulators hate to grant: a groin. That's a barrier, usually rock or wood, built from dunes down into the surf to trap sand running in the shore currents along the beach. State coastal policy discourages groins because while they collect sand on the upstream wall, they exacerbate erosion on the downstream wall.
A permit applicant must demonstrate the groin won't affect the environment downstream, said Marvin Pontiff assistant deputy commissioner of S.C. Ocean and Coastal Resources. Bird Key Stono, a critical shorebird rookery, sits just downstream of the park.
Getting a permit could take two years or longer, if a permit can be won at all. That's two years the park might not have.
Winning a permit "is case by case," said Sara Corbett, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "There's a lot to be taken into account. It's just a really lengthy process."
Meanwhile, finding enough money for beach renourishment won't be easy in 2012, if it's possible at all. Emergency sand renourishment has failed to ward off the seas. Officials already have announced that the park won't reopen next summer. They are worried but shy away from the suggestion it might never reopen the way it was.
"The only permanent solution is a permanent groin. And it has to coincident with beach renourishment," O'Rourke said. But parks officials and local leaders are pressing state and federal officials and legislators for help. "I'm very concerned right now. I do believe we'll be able to salvage something by the time this is done."
O'Rourke still thinks the commission can rebuild the park largely as it was. And counterintuitively, the critical-area Bird Key rookery might turn out to be a factor in getting the permit.
The commission won a permit to build a 670-foot-long, sheet pile groin in 2003, when erosion also wiped out the dunes, boardwalks, remote showers and the farthest reaches of the parking lot. But sands that had disappeared began to accrete again on the beach, so the groin was never built. In 2005, Folly Beach as a whole was renourished, and the park dunes restored.
Then came Irene.
But sands swept from the park and the renourished island beach as a whole have been accreting in Stono Inlet where Bird Key Stono sits. So much sand has piled up that Skimmer Flats between the key and the park is growing. At low tide, exposed flats stretch toward the park and the inlet between them is almost walkable. That has conservationists alarmed. Raccoon are adept swimmers and could easily get onto Bird Key Stono to feast on shorebird eggs.
"It's not the greatest precedent, and I'm not normally in favor of a groin in a critical area, but a small-scale groin might actually be beneficial" if its cuts down on the flats build-up but doesn't erode sand from Bird Key, said Nathan Dias, of the Cape Romain Bird Sanctuary.
"I think we might be able to get the park back," O'Rourke said. "That's our challenge. We're going to do everything we can."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at @bopete.