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Isle of Palms

Isle of Sandbags | Shoreline erosion on Isle of Palms threatens wildlife and humans

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"A wise man builds his house upon a rock," goes the old Bible saying. Rising tides, eroding shorelines, and the extreme power of hurricanes and tropical storms are not new threats to coastal property owners, yet people continue to build beachfront structures, regularly spending money for repairs to keep them standing. On the north side of the Isle of Palms, some folks are saying it's time to submit to mother nature and accept that the ocean will eventually have its way.

On the morning of Thurs., June 7, Nancy Vinson, program director of the Coastal Conservation League (CCL), called an emergency press conference at IOP's Wild Dunes Resort, stating, "We are facing a disaster here created by people."

In 2004, thousands of five-gallon sandbags were placed alongside and in front of buildings threatened with shoreline erosion after Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) issued a temporary emergency order of action. Three years later, 50-gallon sandbags are in place and the initial, smaller bags are disintegrating and washing out to sea.

The pollution caused by sandbag debris poses several problems. Boaters may be in danger if floating bags become entangled in their propellers, and tourism suffers as the sites along the shoreline are scarred by ugly bags and unwanted debris. Beach access is blocked during high tide, and endangered loggerhead sea turtles and shore birds are dying as a result of sandbag consumption, due to their inability to digest the materials. Furthermore, hundreds of sea turtles traveling thousands of miles to shore between the months of May and October to lay eggs under the sand are being prevented by the erosion control structures from digging deep into the dry sand to lay eggs.

Vinson said those in opposition to the emergency order of action would like OCRM to take responsibility, "uphold the law," and "never let something like this happen again." For nearly two decades, South Carolina state law has said that beaches are not to be armored with seawalls or piles of things resembling sea walls in the event of eroding shorelines. Small sand bags may be used for temporary emergency protection, but the sandbags currently littering the beaches do indeed resemble sea walls, and at 50-gallons, they're far from "temporary."

The OCRM 2004 initial emergency order makes clear that the sandbag protection was authorized "only to allow Owner[s] sufficient time to pursue a more long-term solution for the protection of its buildings." What then is the long-term solution? Even larger sandbags?

The order also stated five-gallon sandbags be filled with only beach-compatible sand. If 50-gallon sandbags were to be installed, all the existing sandbags must first be removed because of the threat to the sea turtles.

Today, not only are 50-gallon sandbags in place, 10-times the legal size, but they're filled with noncompatible objects such as, "rocks, construction debris, and plants," says a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Underneath and around them, the smaller bags are still present.

On June 1, 2007, OCRM issued a notice of violation calling for the immediate removal of all small bags. Property owners with any bags remaining after Nov. 30, 2007 will be fined, regardless of the bag size.

Professor Rob Young, the director of the Program of Study Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, states, "In an age of continued sea-level rise, solutions to long-term erosion problems require community-wide participation and long-term planning." Vinson agrees, saying, "Plans should have been made for buildings to retreat from the shoreline a long time ago, and the current short-term actions are just making things worse."

Vinson issued a plea to the public to join with the CCL, the Island Turtle Team, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and many others to help clean up sandbag debris as far north as Cape Romaine down to Dafuskie Island. "We need people — beach walkers, kayakers, and boaters to scour the beaches, inlets, and creeks."

For information on helping with the clean-up, visit www.scccl.org

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