boat to check Bucksport flooding.jpg (copy)

A man was pulling his boat to deeper water on Bucksport Road before paddling away to check on a relative on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Floodwaters from the Bull Creek and the Waccamaw and the Pee Dee rivers are rising on lower-lying houses in the community, between Georgetown and Conway. Wade Spees/Staff

As a year full of flooding events comes to a close, South Carolina's first state commission designed to tackle floodwaters will hold its first meeting Thursday in Columbia.

The commission, created in an Oct. 15 executive order by Gov. Henry McMaster, is meant as a "state-wide flood accommodation, response and mitigation effort," according to the text of the order.

The members of the commission will include officials from local governments along the coast, representatives of several state agencies, academic experts and others.

The group will have plenty to talk about after the Palmetto State was ravaged by several flooding events this year, including: a slow-moving deluge in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand unleashed by Hurricane Florence; high-tide events along the coast; and cloudbursts that have intermittently unleashed havoc around the Charleston area. 

This year also saw the release of several landmark reports on climate change, including one that projects high-tide flooding could happen as often as every other day in coastal South Carolina by 2045. 

Camden attorney Tom Mullikin, who teaches environmental law and policy at Coastal Carolina University, will chair the panel. 

Mullikin, who also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in the 5th District this year, said the work before the group would be a "Herculean task."

"This is not going to be about political conversation, it's going to be about substantive resolution," Mullikin said. 

While other agencies, such as the S.C. Emergency Management Division and Department of Natural Resources, have taken the lead on flooding crises and mitigation programs in the past, the flooding commission will be housed within the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. 

"They too have the expertise and the administrative capacity to be able to house something like this, and you know flooding affects the entire state, but it also affects the tourism industry," said Brian Symmes, a spokesman for McMaster's office. 

PRT Director Duane Parrish said that his agency had available office space and staff to serve the commission.

A cohesive approach

One of the most valuable things to come from the state commission could be guidance for local governments on how they should plan for flooding when regulating land use, environmental advocates said. 

Chief among those plans, said Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League, should be a road map for how to conserve land to protect waterways to maintain the natural infrastructure that could help mitigate flooding. 

"I think what this task force could have an opportunity to do would be to bring in expertise from a wide range of disciplines to come together to recommend ... a toolkit for local communities to implement new land-use strategies and look at a watershed approach," Crowley said. 

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, a commission member, said he thought the ability to coordinate between localities across the coast would be valuable, mentioning the Dutch water boards. The jurisdiction of those boards follow the boundaries of the nation's drainage basins, which he learned about on a fact-finding trip to the Netherlands this year. 

"I want to make sure ... that folks come to understand that water does not honor jurisdictional lines, and it really takes everyone working together and trying to get on the same page with regards to policies," he said. 

But Crowley worried that the commission, according to the executive order, only includes local government officials from the coast. One of the state's worst flooding disasters was the widespread flooding around Columbia in 2015, and this year's Florence-related flooding happened largely in the Pee Dee, well in from the coast. 

Mullikin said that the commission will have "representation from across the state."

Public and private perspectives

Another issue that's likely to come up will be funding for expensive infrastructure work to protect flood-prone areas.

In Charleston alone, the city is undertaking massive projects such as raising of the Low Battery sea wall at the southwestern tip of the peninsula, which is expected to cost $60 million or more. Just last week, city officials learned that an ongoing project to revamp drainage along the Septima P. Clark Parkway, also known as the Crosstown, is $43 million over budget.

Officials in Horry County are also eyeing their future infrastructure costs after flooding unleashed by Florence swamped several area roads, complicating travel in and out of the Grand Strand for days.  

Tecklenburg said that Charleston already has been working on engaging state officials for infrastructure funding. For instance, it hopes lawmakers will pass a bill next year allowing accommodations tax money to be spent on drainage projects.

"Participating in the commission will just keep my ear that much closer to the ground with resources that may be available," he said.

Mullikin stressed that the commission will not only focus on local government but also will include members of the private sector, which he said would be crucial to identifying the "opportunity" that might be available as South Carolina plans around future flooding.

"Bringing that business voice and the voice of an entrepreneur to the table may be a very different perspective," Mullikin said.

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

Chloe Johnson covers the coastal environment and climate change for the Post and Courier. She's always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.