Clean Water Act (copy)

This cypress swamp near Middleton Place is an example of a wetland that could be affected by a rollback of the Clean Water Act, which would strip protection for certain types of Wetlands. Brad Nettles/Staff

Runnymede, the Whitfield property, Cane Bay, Nexton, Carnes Crossroads, Long Savannah, Middleborough, Gippy Plantation, Cainhoy Plantation — all have one thing in common: If developed, each will upset the natural balance between our land and waterways by filling wetlands and replacing them with ponds, pipes and outfalls.

Long Savannah is an eye-opener. The plan — conceived more than a decade ago before the October 2015 flood, and hurricanes Matthew and Irma — calls for filling more than 200 acres of freshwater wetlands in and near the troubled Church Creek basin. Supporters claim the project will protect water quality and improve flooding.

Models abound, but projects like these are not vetted for their cumulative impact on flooding and water quality. Wetland destruction and land alteration of the magnitude experienced in our region cannot be understood in isolation. Our rivers and waters know no boundaries.

Charleston Waterkeeper monitors all wetland fill applications. We are scrutinizing Long Savannah’s plan and working with partners to understand the project’s larger impacts to Church Creek and the Ashley and Stono rivers. We are already living with the consequences of outdated approaches to development and drainage that are expensive and unsustainable. We cannot afford to continue down this path.

The city of Charleston was right to pause development around Church Creek, study potential solutions, and update its stormwater rules to better manage rising waters and more intense storms. That is a step in the right direction but also a missed opportunity to lead. We need a bold vision for how growth, resiliency and healthy rivers can coexist.

That vision starts with a regional commitment to protect wetlands and river systems. Wetlands are a crucial, irreplaceable filter for polluted runoff and store large volumes of floodwater and provide unparalleled habitat for wildlife. They are the essential unit of our Lowcountry landscape. We cannot fix flooding and protect the health of our rivers in a piecemeal fashion that lacks a basic respect for wetlands and their functions.

Next, we need a public forum for transparent scrutiny of all development projects that propose wetland impacts in our region. Our wetter future is here now. We must understand how projects relate to our current goals for growth management, protection of our historic river corridors, open space and, perhaps most importantly, flooding. Citizens have a right to know how these projects will impact water quality, human health and quality of life over the long term.

Finally, local and state stormwater regulations must be overhauled to encourage the use of infrastructure that mimics the natural relationship between our land and water. Eons of natural process designed our native soils, wetlands and vegetation to soak up and filter water. Solutions like restored and engineered wetlands, flood parks, green roofs and rain gardens function the same way, storing floodwater and filtering pollution while also adding value to development projects, neighborhoods and communities.

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Leading with this vision is important now. The EPA is working to remove long-standing protections for local wetlands that will make it easier to destroy them without regard for their important functions. To make matters worse, there are no state or local wetland protections to fall back on in South Carolina. We will not have a second chance to get this right.

Acre by acre, aggressive development and outdated drainage practices have replumbed the Lowcountry. We see the consequences of that every day — flooding, contaminated fish, plastic pollution, closed oyster beds and unsafe water quality after rainstorms. Our rivers and harbor are speaking to us. The only question is: Will we listen?

Andrew Wunderley is executive director and waterkeeper with Charleston Waterkeeper.

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