South Carolina’s Solution To Sea Level Rise: Build More Walls


In this photo of Debordieu Island in June 2005, the left side of the coast is left free to migrate, which the right side -- a seawall-protected property -- is left in a precarious position seaward of the natural shoreline.

In a move lawmakers hope will protect a wealthy golf community’s beachfront homes from mounting sea level rise, a South Carolina House committee on Thursday voted to advance a bill allowing Debordieu Beach to build new seawalls, despite protests from coastal protection advocates who say the walls will ultimately do nothing to protect the beach or the homes.

The state House’s Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee voted 17-1 for the bill, which many predict will end up weakening South Carolina’s longstanding law against new seawalls. Seawalls, artificial structures designed to protect buildings from coastal erosion and storm surge, are controversial because they commonly result in loss of the actual beach, preventing it from naturally moving inward as it erodes. The buildings remain in the short-term, but the beach disappears.

South Carolina environmentalists are labeling the vote as another example of their state government attempting to put a band-aid on the worsening problem of erosion and sea level rise, instead of limiting beachfront development and helping people move away from the disappearing beach.

“They see it as protecting homeowner investment — that it’s about the homes, not about the beach,” Nancy Cave, north coast director of the state’s Coastal Conservation League, told ThinkProgress. “They do not understand or even acknowledge that the seawall causes more erosion in front of the seawall. It is in many ways a short-term solution.”

Debordieu Beach, she says, is a resort community located on one of the state’s barrier islands. Over the past 25 years, erosion has claimed more than 1,000 acres of those islands — a trend that scientists anticipate will only increase with climate change.

But South Carolina’s government has a history of ignoring and suppressing the facts on climate change, much to Cave’s chagrin. That fact was most prominently displayed in February 2013, when it was revealed that the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had been withholding a report about the local impact of climate change since November 2011.

That report found that the Palmetto State faces an average temperature rise of as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 70 years. Along with the heat would come increases in wildlife disease, loss of habitat for wild game, degradation of the state’s valuable recreational and commercial fisheries, and — unsurprisingly — sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and beach flooding.

“I don’t think our legislature has acknowledged climate change in any way shape or form, so I don’t think that’s something they really think about as they make decisions and vote on issues,” Cave said, “I think this is special interest legislation that a group of wealthy and influential voters are able to influence.”

The bill to allow a new seawall for Debordieu Beach, which will now go to the full House floor, comes just days after the White House released its National Climate Assessment report, which warned among other things that rising seas are already becoming a reality in South Carolina. The report said the southeast United States will be “exceptionally vulnerable” to rising sea levels, extreme heat events, hurricanes, and decreased water resources.

The White House reported recommended strategies for adapting to sea level rise, one of which was the protection of development by building levees or seawalls. However, the chapter’s lead author Leonard Berry told ThinkProgress that communities should prioritize projects that take advantage of natural systems, and that communities may find that retreating from rising seas is the best approach.

“Retreat — nobody likes to use that word,” he said. “But in some cases, as the Dutch have found, it’s better to have an organized retreat from some environments where the costs and the penalties of trying to hold the rising sea level back are just too much.”