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Gov. Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette trim overgrown shrubbery along a floodway canal in Nichols as part of a volunteer effort that's part of a statewide flooding task force. File/Rob Thompson/SCDOT

Dozens of retired scientists and environmental groups say key recommendations of South Carolina's statewide flooding task force are misguided and that scientific data don't support them. 

Ideas such as artificial reefs to slow beach erosion and man-dug lakes to hold excess river water should be scrapped, according to the Senior Conservation Leadership Alliance.

"Many of the draft recommendations appear to align less with stewardship of our natural resources than with business as usual, including a 'build our way out of it' approach to the challenge," a letter from the Alliance says. 

The group includes 22 scientists and policy experts who have had careers with past governors, state environmental regulators and federal agencies.

The group, and another coalition of environmental nonprofits, said over-engineering the problem — and encouraging new development near the hypothetical lake — could miss the point.

Instead, they say Gov. Henry McMaster's task force should focus more on moving people away from flood-prone areas, including the beach. 

The comments were submitted in response to the August findings of McMaster's Floodwater Commission. Many people also said the report didn't seem to clearly lay out the causes of flooding in different parts of the state, didn't include costs or feasibility for the potential fixes, and didn't incorporate science to back up the claims.

"The whole report lacks data," said Rick Dawson, an Alliance member who consults with the Federal Emergency Management Administration on disaster recovery. "How can you write a report about flooding and not have any data in there?"

Floodwater Commission Chairman Tom Mullikin said the document released in August — called the "initial findings and recommendations" by the governor's office  — includes just summaries of a longer, 400-page report that's yet to come.

The full document will include more detail and supporting data, he said. 

Mullikin said the comments that were submitted are not being used to draft that longer report. That work has been done, he said, and will be presented to the governor on the commission's last scheduled meeting Friday. The public comments will also be passed along as an attachment. 

Critics remain. 

"The entire process seems suspect to me, because if they are asking for public input but then not willing to incorporate feedback or discuss feedback ... what is the point of the public feedback?" said Lisa Jones-Turansky of the Coastal Conservation League.  

'Reframe the discussion'

All the scientists, environmental advocates and flood survivors contacted by The Post and Courier said they were grateful that the state is taking the time to tackle flooding. The work is timely, after several successive years of flooding storms.

The problem is also increasing in scope for South Carolina as global temperatures rise due to climate change. But among the problems in the report, scientists said, is a lack of acknowledgement that climate change was causing the problems, both in sea level rise and in more intense downpours.

Mullikin said there will be more on the topic in the final document, but has said multiple times the commission will not address the causes of climate change — widely accepted as planet-warming emissions from fossil fuels.

There was little detail in other areas, too, like what federal monies might be available for projects and how dams should be managed. Failing earthen dams were a critical part of 2015 flooding that inundated the Midlands. 

Carole Mannion, an Horry County resident who's been flooded by the Waccamaw River, said the initial report provided little detail on how to actually manage river flooding but spoke extensively to coastal problems. 

"Would it not make more sense to divide it by area (of the state), because each area has different concerns and issues?" she said.

It's the basic premise itself that had others concerned.

"Let's talk about prevention of floods rather than protecting properties from floods," Dawson said. "Let's reframe this discussion."

While the commission's work has advocated in part for protecting floodplains and marshes, it does not lay out specific ways to achieve that. In other places, it advocates for fixes that could keep vulnerable homes in place, like artificial reefs, and even encourage new building, such as around a man-made lake.

One recommendation that environmental groups pushed early on was a universal set of planning guidelines for local governments to avoid developing flood-prone areas. Fred Holland, a retired scientist who studied tidal creeks and ran the federal lab at the Fort Johnson marine studies site on James Island, said he would have liked to see a model ordinance for cities and towns. 

The commission "didn't seem to understand that sprawling development and storm water runoff is a major issue with flooding," said Holland, another alliance member.

Mullikin said such a toolbox of development rules could be a "brilliant idea" for local governments, particularly those without adequate planning staff. But the commission didn't get to it. 

"We did the best we could in a year," he said. "I don’t think we made it all the way down there (to the local level)."

Day of service

While the first round of comments hasn't been sterling, environmental groups will get a second chance. After the final report is finished, another comment period will open for 60 days.

Mullikin said he and commission members are open to the comments that have rolled in so far. But he's also eager to see leaders rallying around the state effort. 

"We've got to get thought leaders away from simply criticizing others' ideas, and rolling up their sleeves and supporting state and community leaders," Mullikin said.

Mullikin, a globe-trotting environmental lawyer who's the former commander of the S.C. State Guard, has tried to stress an esprit de corps in part through massive volunteer efforts by the commission. The last one was in Marion County, where the small town of Nichols was underwater twice in two years. 

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Sis Owen and her husband Doug Owen join in a visit with neighbor April O'Leary as she talks with S.C. Floodwater Commission chairman Tom Mullikin on Friday, August 30, 2019, in Conway. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

April O'Leary said she was initially heartened by the can-do attitude of commission chair Mullikin, especially after he showed up on her doorstep one day in August.

O'Leary, who used to work for the Winyah Rivers Association, helps advocate for flooded families in Horry County. At the time, she had been struggling to engage public leaders on the flood problems — it took her four months to get a meeting with the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-Mytle Beach, she said. 

But Mullikin, who teaches at nearby Coastal Carolina University, showed up after a single call. O'Leary said she appreciated the attention but that she worries the commission's focus on holding a day of service in conjunction with its upcoming meeting is a fleeting effort. 

"It's totally a photo op," she said. "That activity would be meaningful if it was a stewardship opportunity they would throw some money towards long-term."

Mannion, whose house took on 2 feet of water after Hurricane Florence in 2018, said it was "worse than nearsighted" to ask the community to clean ditches when many people were still out of their homes. Others said the day might be better spent hashing out some of the criticisms made of the work and reflecting them in the final report's recommendation. 

"Ideally, all these comments would be incorporated and considered thoughtfully (for) the full report," said Megan Chase of Upstate Forever, a conservation group.

Mullikin said the event was not meant simply for good press. 

"It’s a real work day," he said. "It’s dealing with real problems, and we’re trying to raise awareness of various strategies that need to be taken on, in an ongoing basis." 

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.