By Kristin Hackler
At the request of several concerned citizens, including members of the Coastal Conservation League and the Friends of the Kiawah River, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) scheduled a hearing for Seabrook Island’s proposed channel cut at Captain Sam’s Spit on September 30 at Seabrook Town Hall.
Bill Eiser, project manager for the permit application, welcomed the crowd of approximately 40 attendees, including Kiawah Island’s Mayor William Wert, Kiawah Councilman Alan Burnaford and Kiawah Road Committee Chairman Dr. Paul Roberts, as well as Seabrook Island’s Mayor William Holtz, Seabrook Councilmen Robert Savin and Sam Reed, and Seabrook Island Property Association (SIPOA) Vice Chairman John Thompson.
Before launching into the comment period, Scott Wallinger, President of SIPOA, gave a brief presentation on the history of the cut at Captain Sam’s Spit. The area of Captain Sam’s Spit, said Wallinger, has been in its present location for the last 100 years, and in 1982, it bore very little resemblance to what’s in place today. In the early 80s, the beach was little more than a rocky, heavily armored wall. There was no bird or turtle habitat in place. Once the first cut was made in 1984, however, sand began accumulating and eventually built up to 150 acres of sand; burying the rock wall under tons of pristine beach. In 1996, the cut was made again, and by 2012, it will be needed a third time if the area is to maintain its present appearance.
The cut works by dredging the channel next to Captain Sam’s Spit so that the Kiawah River empties into the ocean at a 90 degree angle, and the dredged sand is used to block the forming inlet which naturally builds at an angle complimentary to the tides. By creating the cut at 90 degrees, sand is forced to stop instead of drifting further down shore, thereby building up the beach we see today at Captain Sam’s Spit.
Tom Fox, a biologist on Seabrook Island and member of the Seabrook Island Environmental Committee, concurred with Wallinger, pointing out the significant habitat area created by the cut, noting that the environment created is favorable to Wilson’s Plover, Least Terns, Loggerheads and Diamondback Terrapins.
“This relocation allows us to sustain habitat diversity and gain what’s lost,” said Fox. “Before we do anything, we will perform a biological assessment of the area to determine the optimal move time and we will not do anything until it’s done.”
With the conclusion of the SIPOA presentation, Eiser opened the floor to comments from the audience.
Andy Harrison, a Charleston resident and member of the Charleston Naturalist Society, expressed his concern over the impact on the federally threatened Piping Plover, which nest on the Spit for 11 months out of the year. Additionally, more than 2,000 Red Knots, another threatened bird species, have been spotted in the Captain Sam’s Spit area.
“We will lose the invertebrates these birds use as a food source if you dredge this area,” said Harrison. “They might recover, but it will take two to three years. The east end of Kiawah still hasn’t recovered. I strongly oppose this cut, but if it is approved, I ask that the dredging be delayed until the east end of Kiawah has recovered, as evidenced by the birds returning.”
Marilyn Blizard also spoke in opposition to the cut, asking DHEC and OCRM to consider the almost inexistent population of Diamondback Terrapin in the area – a species which once filled the waters of Kiawah River. “You may say, well, it’s just another species, but when their gone, they’re gone,” said Blizard.
“Piping Plover nest in this area at least 10 months out of the year,” said Dr. Paula Feldman, a Kiawah Island resident and professor at USC. “And Least Terns nest there from early May to late July, as well as Wilson’s Plover. There’s just no month-and-a-half period of time when endangered species are not present in that area. The cut will harm at least one species.”
Dr. Robert Savin, however, spoke in support of the cut, pointing out that Seabrook had a record year for loggerhead turtle nests this year, and with the 90 degree cut, more sand and more beach will become available for nesting and turtles. Dr. Tim Kana of Coastal Science and Engineering agreed, pointing out that SIPOA and his firm are concerned about the habitats, as well, and that they have requested a winter construction as it would have the least environmental impact. He also noted that dynamic areas such as beachfronts are constantly changing, and what might have been a tidal pool the year before could be solid sand or a spot for burgeoning plant growth a year later. “Habitats change, that’s how barrier islands evolve. The environment is ephemeral and rapidly changing,” said Kana. “In a couple years, one million cubic yards of sand will move into this area and there will be no net loss of habitats – just a shift in areas and the habitats will cycle.”
The record for comments on Captain Sam’s Spit closes on Friday, October 15. Comments may be sent to The Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, 1362 McMillan Ave., Suite 400, Charleston, SC, 29405 attn: Bill Eiser. Comments must address public hearing 2008-1870-2IG-P.