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Renourishment a go for prized SC rookery Crab Bank in Charleston Harbor

Return of nesting birds to Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary one step closer (copy)

Shorebirds like pelicans flocked to the Crab Bank rookery before it eroded away. Andy Hollis, Coastal Conservation League/Provided

After a long, hard slog, the Crab Bank renourishment project in Charleston Harbor has finally hit some solid ground.

The contract has been awarded. The price came in lower than expected. The Army Corps of Engineers and Mount Pleasant officials, who originally objected to the project, are at least trying to work together to restore the vital shorebird rookery.

Now all they have to do is wait for the Savannah River deepening to move far enough along so dredging equipment can be barged to Charleston.

The best estimate of a starting date is still sometime in 2021, according to the Army Corps. A project manager for Norfolk Dredging, which won the contract, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The work would be expected to take two months and the pumping lines will disrupt recreational boating traffic in the popular harbor area. The lines will be marked and lighted, and a navigation notice issued.

"The lines will be there. Recreational boaters will need to be aware of that," said Brian Williams, the Army Corps' civil works chief for the Charleston District.

Crab Bank was a seabird and shorebird rookery in the harbor near Mount Pleasant that at its peak had nearly 4,000 birds nesting on 18 acres of high ground. By 2018, erosion had cut the high ground to about 1 acre and no birds nested.

"We're excited about doing this work," Williams said. "It's been talked about a long time. When the coastal birds are using it for nesting that will be the ultimate tell."

The contracted $230,000 cost of setting sand over 28 acres of nesting ground and 80 acres total is about $140,000 below the previous estimate.

The public share coming from funds and individual donations is only $80,000. The Army Corps share is $150,000.

The rest of more than $1 million in contributions and a $700,000 federal grant will be used for other restorations, such as adding sea grasses meant to hold renourished sand in place at Crab Bank and other rookeries.

When the renourishment equipment is in place, the Army Crops will evaluate what's left of the rookery bank to decide a final footprint for pouring the sandy dredge soils, coordinating with the town of Mount Pleasant, Williams said.

Mayor Will Haynie said he was grateful to hear the Army Corps has committed to reevaluating its original footprint, or designed shape of the renourished bank near the mouth of the town's Shem Creek.

Mount Pleasant officials objected to preliminary plans to renourish the island, saying the configuration would worsen silting in the mouth of the creek, which already must be dredged periodically. Shem Creek is a landmark fishing hub and tourism draw estimated to be worth $100 million to the local economy.

Crab Bank move (copy) (copy)

The town paid $100,000 for its own study because of those concerns and pressed the Army Corps to use the study's reworked footprint instead of its own proposed plan.

Now both sides appear to have settled on a compromise.

"We are confident that with cooperation with the Corps engineers, placement of that amount of dredge spoil can be done so that it doesn’t negatively affect the depth of Shem Creek," Haynie said.

The leftover funds could also be used to build oyster reefs, and provide seed money for the S.C. Coastal Bird Conservation Program coalition's ongoing shorebird conservation efforts.

The money is being held by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, a partner in the program. The further uses of the money were delineated as part of the fundraising.

Fundraising to pay for the renourishment, organized by partners who eventually helped form the program, began in January 2018 with an original goal of an estimated $1.25 million needed and a deadline thought to be little more than a year.

The estimate eventually became $2 million. The federal grant saved the day.

The bank was one of five protected rookeries that helped make for the eye-catching flocks of seabirds and shorebirds that are a wonder of the Southeast coast — from pelicans flying in formation by the dozens to black skimmers and oystercatchers hunting inches above the water.

The rookeries are vital habitat for troubled and threatened species. Each is critical because individual islands tend to wash out, and because a tropical storm or hurricane can wreak havoc on any one of them. Crab Bank is the only one located in the relative safety of a harbor.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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