King Tide (copy) (copy)

The Coast Guard base in Charleston, and areas around it, can get swamped by the combination of tide and rain that floods Lockwood Boulevard near its docks. File/Staff 

The U.S. military is making a first-of-its-kind move to pay for improving roads and other infrastructure off of its bases — a move that could help as sea rise takes hold in defense-heavy South Carolina.

If the move gets funded, it could lead to shoring up access to South Carolina coastal sites, such as the Coast Guard stations in Charleston along the Ashley and Cooper rivers.

The roads to those installations get swamped with a heavy rain during high tides.

It could also pay for better access to the Marine Corps training grounds on Parris Island and the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, both of which are in low-lying areas.

For the first time, the Department of Defense has asked for and been authorized by Congress to spend money off-base for the improvements so its service people can get back and forth during floods that are plaguing areas more often as storms worsen and seas rise.

Service budgets for the Pentagon already pay for improving projects to combat flooding on-base.

The move and the authorization come despite Trump administration skepticism about climate warming and reluctance to budget for it.

Congress, however, did not designate funds with the authorization, and new appropriations currently are snarled in the budget standoff between President Donald Trump and Congress over funding for a wall across the Mexican border.

"Authorizing these off-base improvements is a good first step towards ensuring our troops and military infrastructure stay safe," said Sean Smith, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. Scott previously served on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The senator "will continue working with colleagues who serve on (the Armed Services Committee) and the Appropriations Committee as that process begins for the next fiscal year," Smith said.

The appropriation process typically begins in early summer and Scott will see what options are available at that point, Smith said.

A spokesman for Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declined to comment.

The Center for Climate Security, which has argued for a more aggressive military preparation for climate warming concerns as vital to national defense, called the authorization innovative.

"The full potential won't be reached until the authorization is funded," said John Conger, the center director and a former Department of Defense comptroller. 

"I think (the authorization) is dramatic," he said, adding the military has had a "not their job" bias against spending defense dollars on civilian infrastructure.

"This is very new. I've never seen a thing with this much authority," Conger said.

The move comes after a 2015 Department of Defense study found "sea level rise to be a significant and pervasive threat multiplier to mission sustainability," including infrastructure, capabilities and provisioning, the report said.

The need is considered urgent in South Carolina. Parris Island now floods about 10 times per year. By 2050 it could be flooded one-third of the year, according to the Climate and Security center.

Within 50 years, the number of days Charleston floods will go from 40 per year to as many as 70 per year, with progressively more ground flooding, according to recent studies.

The city is combating sea rise flooding with projects that include raising the Low Battery walls at Charleston Harbor, as well as drainage and other improvements. At least one recent study suggests that might not be enough.

The Coast Guard Station on Tradd Street is in the part of the city protected by the Low Battery.

"The short answer is 'yes,'" the city could use that extra funding, said city Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert. It's too soon to even estimate the complete cost to protect the peninsula. By the end of the year a joint study with the Army Corps of Engineers will be completed that will produce a comprehensive plan, he said.

How much money might be available for the Coast Guard is just one of the questions still to be answered.

The majority of the U.S. military falls under the Department of Defense. The Coast Guard, however, is part of the Department of Homeland Security. But the service can be "called up," so to speak, by the Defense Department if there is a military need.

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

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.