Growing up in South Carolina, I was attracted to tidal creeks and marshes because of their natural beauty and ease of access for recreation. As an estuarine ecologist, I am attracted to creeks and marshes because of their ecological complexity and key roles in sustaining the natural beauty and economic future of our coast.
In the early 1950’s, my brothers and I spent our summer vacations at North Myrtle Beach. We would often gather fish and crabs in nearby tidal creeks and feast on the bountiful harvest. Today, it is unsafe to eat the shellfish from most of these creeks and too few game fish and crabs occur in them to make fishing worthwhile. A main cause of these changes is uncontrolled and poorly planned coastal development, including the associated roads, parking lots, and roofs. These structures increase the amount of our coastal land that is impervious to rain. Imperviousness is the major contributor to stormwater runoff and the related increases in pollution. It is also a precursor to flooding. Flooding, stormwater runoff and tainted seafood have large societal and economic impacts. We are ultimately destroying the attributes that attracted us to the coast in the first place. We are soiling our nest, so to speak.
Tidal creeks are the conduits that deliver stormwater runoff and associated pollutants to our bays, rivers, estuaries, and coast. Their environmental health provides an early warning of impending broad-scale degradation. They are the sentinels of coastal health. Creeks are also an integral part of the natural beauty and biological productivity that make the low country special.
Almost everyone feels that the natural beauty and productivity of our coasts should be conserved and our homes should be resilient to flooding. Few, however, know what to do. Educating the public about the value and susceptibility of natural resources to coastal development and providing a list of things citizens and decision makers can do to improve environmental quality and make their homes resilient to flooding has great benefit. Most people want to do the right thing and will if given the opportunity.
A critical first step for protecting our creeks and homes is to convert the science of tidal creeks and stormwater runoff into information that results in land use ordinances. These ordinances must protect the tidal creeks and marshes and prevent flooding while also protecting property rights. Over the past several decades, after many meetings with the public, land use planners, and decision makers, a few ordinances that protect natural resources have been developed. These ordinances are far too few and are incomplete. They are, however, a step in the right direction.
The key to coastal conservation is development of a stewardship ethic that sustains natural resources for use and enjoyment by future generations. Well-planned development and sustainable land use practices now will help ensure future generations will be able to eat the seafood and swim in the water. These practices will also help ensure our homes are resilient to flooding. We must fight the war to conserve our coasts one creek at a time.