I was walking on Folly Beach with some friends a few months ago. One of us pulled a plastic shopping bag out of the sand and the rest of us were soon filling it with plastic bottles, cans, cups, Styrofoam, and other litter. We dumped it into a garbage can and filled it two more times before our walk was finished.
People want to live and party by the ocean, one of our group commented, but few have any understanding of it. Few have any ethic for living with it.
I was reminded of that little beach walk recently when a reader recommended a piece that appears in the July issue of National Geographic. I am now recommending it to you. The article, by senior writer Joel K. Bourne, Jr., is an overview of the condition of America's coasts — and it's not a pretty picture.
Bourne writes that everybody seems to have Jimmy Buffett syndrome. That is to say, we all want to live near water and palm trees.
I certainly did. I made the decision to live on the coast and I don't regret it. But 78 million fellow baby boomers are getting ready to retire and millions of them have visions of sand dunes and sea oats. More than half the population of the United States already lives in coastal counties, which comprise 17 percent of the land mass of the lower 48 states, Bourne writes. Every day, 1,500 new homes go up along the U.S. coastline.
Bourne provides some good historical background to the present crisis: In 1969, Congress created the Stratton Commission to prepare the first report on the U.S. coastal zone, laying the foundation for current coastal policies.
"The Stratton commissioners saw the ocean as a source of endless bounty," Bourne writes, "encouraging the federal government to build up fishing fleets and drill for oil and gas offshore."
Four decades later, the folly of that policy is clear: "90 percent of the world's large pelagic fishes, like tuna, marlin and sharks, gone; three-quarters of the world's major fisheries exploited, overfished, or depleted; and enough oil spilling out of U.S. cars to equal an Exxon Valdez-size spill every eight months."
Politicians and policy-makers are slowly waking up to the crisis. The Pew Ocean Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (on which then-Sen. Fritz Hollings served) issued reports in 2003 which described our coasts as besieged by an array of pollution and population pressures.
It doesn't take an urban planner or biologist to see what is happening in South Carolina. Anyone who has walked the beaches of the Grand Strand has seen the more than 100 stormwater pipes discharging on the beach and into the surf. The Palmetto coast boasts hundreds of golf courses, with more than a hundred of those on the Grand Strand. These unnaturally green and manicured environments require huge amounts of fertilizer and insecticide to keep the duffers happy. These chemicals run off into tidal creeks and marshes and ultimately into the ocean, where they spawn algal blooms, which destroy shellfish and other tidal species.
The most alarming assault on our way of life comes at the hands of powerful interests in Washington and Columbia, who want to open S.C. coastal waters to oil and gas drilling and exploration. First District Rep. Henry Brown is one who thinks the oil and gas industry would be compatible with our environment and coastal lifestyles. His Deep Oceans Energy Resource Act passed the House last month.
But the crowds keep coming. Some 500,000 new residents will move to our coast in the next 30 years. More than 30,000 new homes are in some stage of planning, permitting, or construction in the tri-county area alone. Where will those people live, work, and recreate, and what impact will they have on this fragile coastal ecosystem?
According to the Coastal Conservation League, the S.C. coast loses 30 acres of rural land to suburban development every day. Sprawl is out of control in the Lowcountry, as powerful developers fight every effort at sane land use policy. The Charleston metropolitan area has grown by 40 percent over the last two decades, yet the amount of land developed increased by 240 percent. Figures are comparable for the Beaufort and Georgetown areas, according to the CCL.
There is no simple solution to the mess we have gotten ourselves into, but here's a suggestion: Let's send the Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester county councils on a weekend bus tour of Atlanta, then ask them honestly, "Is this what you want for us?" Of course not. That sprawling, gridlocked nightmare of a city just happened while no one was paying attention. Let's wake up and not let it happen here.