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Commentary: Act now to reset balance between Lowcountry's land and water

The Post and Courier’s excellent Rising Waters series makes one thing clear: The climate has changed, and it’s not good for your waterways.

Nature designed our land and water to work together — flooding and draining — in balance to create a rich ecosystem capable of sustaining us and the fish, birds, turtles and dolphins around us.

In just a short time, we have upset the balance with concrete and pollution. Aggressive growth, lax environmental oversight and bad choices about where and how to build in our estuary have dramatically altered the relationship between land and water. And now our community and our waterways are vulnerable.

Climate change is making it worse. We see it every day.

Local salt marshes are not healthy. Once-vast green swaths are now short and thin, stressed by rising sea levels and extreme high tides. Some stands have died off, leaving bare mudflats. The marsh cannot adapt by migrating landward because it’s blocked by roads, sea walls and buildings.

Heavy rain and floods wash bacteria, pesticides, oil and gas into the water. Sewers overflow, and septic tanks wash out, contaminating our waterways with bacteria and pathogens. Plastic debris and trash are picked up and carried into the nearest creek or river after every flood.

Tidal creeks are eroding and becoming wider and shallower as they silt in with sediment. Critical shorebird rookeries are disappearing under higher and higher tides, threatening the health of pelican, tern, skimmer and gull populations.

The ocean and our estuary are becoming more acidic, making it hard for oysters and clams to reproduce and survive. Acidic water also supports fewer zooplankton, an important link in the marine food web and carbon recycler.

Polluted floodwater invades our homes and businesses and snarls traffic. It also threatens our health, exposing us to harmful pathogens and toxic chemicals. This is especially true for communities of color that have long been overlooked for flood protection and drainage improvements.

Whether we notice these connections or not, the health of our ecosystem and our community is under attack. The pace is accelerating, and the threats are increasing every day. We must make meaningful progress before it’s too risky and too unhealthy to live here.

To reset the delicate balance between land and water, we must act now to:

  • Take a watershed-wide look at flooding, sea-level rise and stormwater pollution to develop holistic solutions. We need to consider ways to optimize our full watershed as we adapt to the new normal.
  • Incentivize low-impact development (and redevelopment) that puts our waterways and our people first, and discourage development that contributes to runoff and fills in wetlands that serve as our front line of protection against flood risk.
  • Implement layered nature-based solutions that restore the natural relationship between land and water, enhance infiltration and maximize storage of floodwater within the landscape.
  • Build watershed-scale resilience thinking into local and regional planning to preserve marsh migration corridors, establish consistent waterway buffer rules, protect native soils and ban development in vulnerable areas.
  • Support data collection, permitting and enforcement efforts at our state and local resource agencies to protect our health and local wildlife and fish populations from climate change.
  • Protect tidal marshes and freshwater wetlands, and build new ones to hold and filter floodwater.

Our rivers, creeks, marshes and wetlands are the first line of defense. When our estuary is vulnerable, so are we. Sustained action and bold vision from all levels of society — individuals, business and government — is required if we are to truly become resilient and protect ourselves and our waterways. Are we brave enough to choose nature over concrete?

Andrew J. Wunderley is executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper.

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