FEATURE ‌ Sand Follies 

Folly Beach renourishment project dredges up old questions

With Folly Beach's third beach renourishment project in 26 years expected to be completed by the end of the month, the question now becomes: will Mayberry by the Sea be sustained into the future? Or, to paraphrase Jimi Hendrix, will the ultra-expensive condos and houses popping up along Folly's beachfront melt like castles made of sand into the sea ... eventually?

As reports of devastation flashed across evening news programs during the fall hurricane season, Folly Beach was receiving a third controversial treatment to combat the effects of Mother Nature's most destructive force.

In 1979, the Folly River Navigation Project dredged almost 324,000 cubic yards of material from the Folly River and trucked it to the west end of the beach. A more complete job was done with the 1993 renourishment, when 2.5 million cubic yards of sand was distributed over a 5.3-mile stretch of beachfront. The total cost of the project ran at $12.5 million -- with local taxpayers covering only 15 percent of the bill.

The current Folly project broke ground on May 27 and is expected to be completed by the end of the month. Similar to the 1993 project, 2.3 million cubic yards of sand will be pumped from an offshore shoal and spread across the small island, from the county park on the island's southern tip to the U.S. Coast Guard monitoring station at the northern end.

Like before, $12.5 million in "cost shared" funding was procured. According to Ted Hauser, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 27 percent of the cost was taken up by the Flood and Coastal Emergencies Commission, with the remainder being covered by the same federal and local percentages as in 1993.

The project received this additional assistance because of the 2004 hurricane season in which the effects of five named storms caused dramatic erosion on the beaches of Florida and South Carolina.

Christopher Mack, a senior coastal engineer at Applied Technology and Management's Coastal Marina Division, points out that despite setbacks from the Iraq War and economic recession, Folly Beach was still able to receive federal funds for this "emergency" renourishment project. However, he wishes people would downplay its "emergency" status.

"What was placed on the beach in 1993 actually lasted almost four years longer than expected, and historical analysis of erosion rates has actually shown that our beaches are relatively stable," says Mack, who believes that negative opinions in the general public are the result of few people understanding that an "active beach" like Folly is much more of an ecologically closed system.

"After a renourishment project is completed, if one were to visit the beach during the following winter months, a sizable portion of the sand would not be there," says Mack, as dredged sand now covers the cement and stone groins that normally interrupt the beach's profile on Folly.

Differentiating motion of currents, wave intensity, and weather systems between the winter and summer months will naturally erode and nourish the beach. Missing sand forms an offshore shoal that will eventually work its way back to shore during the summer. It is this very rate of change that is often confused for erosion.

"The public's perception generally follows that of erosion and loss; while a scientist's view would be more concerned with the transport of sand and the topographical change taking place. There is rarely a permanent loss following a renourishment project," he says.

Like a sculptor's brick of clay carved into the intricate features of a face, nature takes the sand and shapes it into what resembles the topography of a traditional beach. When a renourishment project is completed, the resulting appearance may appear to be just a mound of sand with an exaggerated slope, but it will, over time, morph back into a traditional beach, replenishing each adjacent side bordering the project.

Peter Beck of the Surfrider Foundation has mixed feelings about what is taking place on Folly. His foundation's official stance is "that though renourishment may be a necessary action at times, [it] should never be viewed as a long-term solution. We are in general opposed to any dramatic change which alters the beach's topography, such as renourishment, but also realize that we must bend at times as needs be."

According to Beck, there have already been observed reports of erosion from the current project taking place, as well as many complaints of the project's interference with recreation, as the current renourishment expanded the beach's span and killed many of the sites known to generate good breaks for local surfers.

Although this is understood as being a temporary problem, it will take at least a year or so to reestablish the shoals that gave Folly the best surf in the state.

As an environmental watchdog for the Coastal Conservation League (CCL), Nancy Vinson has followed the Folly project closely. She is concerned that sea turtle nesting will be affected by some of the fill being pumped in.

Since the beginning of the project this summer, many sea turtles were unable to visit nest sites due to the beach's increase slope following a renourishment project, says Vinson. As a result, the CCL would have much rather seen the project take place during winter months, when turtle nesting is not an issue.

And, like Beck, she has received reports of foreign material and rocks being scattered across the beach and obstructing the public's enjoyment.

In general, the league feels that renourishing the beach "will become more and more costly, with increasing storm intensities and rising sea levels due to global warming," she says. Further, the long-term predictions of climate change could forcibly cause more need for renourishment projects.

State government has already taken measures to address the reality of living on the coast. The Beachfront Management Act outlines a "policy of retreat" for beach property owners. If a person lives in an area that is expected to completely erode within the next 50 years, they are obligated to forfeit their home to the ocean if it's threatened.

The need for renourishment is expected to continue being an issue for quite some time, and without better alternatives, citizens are more or less stuck with it.

But, as new reports suggest even more dramatic climatic changes by the mid-century along the coast, many may end up wondering if saving the beach -- any beach -- is worth the cost.


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