Sea level rise is not a threat, it is a reality. Marine heat waves have doubled in frequency and have become longer-lasting, more intense and more extensive. As the oceans warm, seawater expands and raises sea levels. Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, polar ice caps and glaciers are melting, adding more water to the ocean.
In the face of these well-documented changes, Don Weaver of the S.C. Association of Taxpayers steadfastly advocates reliance on seawalls to protect habitable structures in his March 5 op-ed. Such a recommendation is misplaced and shortsighted. And currently it is illegal.
With continued oceanic and atmospheric warming, sea levels are likely to rise 1 to 4 feet in the next century along coastal South Carolina. The Legislature acknowledged this in 1988 when it passed the Beachfront Management Act and its regulations: “Sea level rise in this century is a scientifically documented fact. Our shoreline is suffering from its effects today. It must be accepted that regardless of attempts to forestall the process, the Atlantic Ocean, as a result of sea level rise and periodic storms, is ultimately going to force those who have built too near the beachfront to retreat.” Importantly, in recognizing that seawalls were destroying the public beach — as these structures exacerbate erosion on the seaward side — the Legislature wisely banned all new seawalls on the public beach.
Therein lies the first major distinction between the Charleston Low Battery seawall and the seawall on DeBordieu Beach in Georgetown County that Mr. Weaver fails to grasp: The Low Battery is not on a public beach, but the Debordieu seawall is, as lands below the high water mark belong to the public under the Public Trust Doctrine. Another significant difference between the Low Battery and DeBordieu is the Low Battery seawall protects public property — walkways, a park, streets — and is a historic landmark. The DeBordieu seawall, however, serves only to protect a handful of private structures and in doing so actually sacrifices public property, namely the beach. Presently, when one walks along the beach at DeBordieu, at all but low tide they are unable to walk farther than the seawall because the structure has eliminated much of the dry sand beach surrounding it.
Mr. Weaver’s ill-informed opinion not only goes against sound science and policy, but also the law. He disregards the sanctity of public trust property — our beaches — which should be open and available for all to use. Just like the Charleston Low Battery.
Rather than delaying the inevitable, South Carolina must focus on long-term solutions that prepare for and adapt to the reality of sea level rise. We need smart reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that include increased transparency, disclosure of flood risks and accessible flood maps that reflect future conditions and climate change. Voluntary buyouts of flooded homes must be made timely, widely available and equitable to allow affected South Carolinians to move to safer ground. And we must recognize that we cannot win against Mother Nature.
We face economic and environmental realities that leave us two choices: plan for strategic retreat now and discourage development in risky areas, or undertake a vastly expensive program of armoring the coastline, retreating through a series of unpredictable disasters and ultimately losing all of our beaches. The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is committed to the former. South Carolina’s beaches are one of our most precious public assets, and we at SCELP will continue fighting against the illegal armoring of the coastline to keep the sands open for everyone.
Amy Armstrong is executive director and general counsel of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. Lauren Megill Milton is a Lucey Law Fellow at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.