There was good news and bad news for nature (and humans) this week, and a few open-ended items. First, the open-ended.
One of our board members emailed me two photographs of eggs washed up on the beach at Sullivan’s Island. He wondered what bird they belonged to and where they came from. Incisive analysis led me to conclude that they were pelican eggs (because they were three inches long and no other nesting seabird produces eggs of that size), and that they had probably come from Crab Bank (the rookery closest to Sullivan’s).
This article by Bo Petersen with the Post and Courier concurs. Apparently, the “king tides” (When did we start calling high tides that?) flooded Crab Bank at the mouth of Shem Creek in Charleston Harbor, inundating pelican nests and washing the eggs out to sea as the tide receded.
This sounds catastrophic, given that there are only four sites in the state where pelicans nest. But extreme tides often wash nests out. If it happens early in the season, as it did this week, the birds usually lay another batch. Black skimmer nests are washed out virtually every year because they choose to lay eggs on the lowest parts of these islands, and they always re-nest. This happens to pelicans less often, but I’m optimistic that it won’t be a complete wipe out for the Crab Bank population.
But… this highlights a longer-term issue (as the Apple store would call it). Crab Bank is eroding, largely because of ship wakes. If it is to survive as a seabird rookery, it will need more sand (and ships will have to abide by the speed limit).
A few years ago, the Corps of Engineers agreed to evaluate the quality of the dredged material from the harbor deepening project and the cost of putting sand on Crab Bank. They have concluded that it is not the “least cost” option, and they allege it will take about 4 million dollars more to put sand on Crab Bank than to dump it offshore. Therefore, they do not intend to build the island up. The problem is that their cost-benefit study is flawed. They assigned no value to the rookery.
It should be clear to the Corps, and anybody else who pays attention, that the rookery – essential to the survival of this formerly endangered species – is worth more than $4 million (if that is, indeed, the true cost differential).
The good news is that Bird Key Stono, formerly known as Skimmer Flats, the rookery between Folly Beach and Kiawah, is booming. We visited it (but did NOT land there) on Saturday. The density of pelican nests is breathtaking and wonderful – heads are sticking up above the vegetation everywhere! The pelicans are joined by: royal, Sandwich, gull-billed and least terns, black skimmers, glossy and white ibis, oystercatchers, snowy egrets and tri-colored (aka Louisiana) herons, black crowned night herons, and probably a Wilson’s plover or two. It is truly a nature paradise of global significance!
Bird Key Stono’s reoccupation is vitally important. It was destroyed about 20 years ago when the Corps of Engineers renourished Folly Beach. It has only been in the past few years that the island habitat, and the birds, have returned. And just in the nick of time!
Deveaux Bank, at the mouth of the North Edisto River, is operating at a fraction of its former nesting abundance, having been flattened by Hurricane Matthew. A few years ago, thousands of pelicans, terns and other species nested on Deveaux. This season, only a few hundred are there. (Black skimmers on Deveaux still seem abundant, relatively speaking. Also, friends have reported seeing DOZENS of loggerhead sea turtles this weekend between Deveaux and Botany Bay Island, possibly feeding on the eggs from an influx of horseshoe crabs. And another friend sent us a video taken of a leatherback sea turtle, the largest species in the world, in the Folly River, swimming behind the County Park.)
We can’t afford to lose even one of these rookeries. The vicissitudes of weather, predators, tick infestation, humans and a dozen other threats can almost obliterate an entire nesting season on these ephemeral islands. (Crab Bank and Deveaux being cases in point this year.) Every rookery is critical to the populations of these birds we enjoy and take for granted on the coast.
Meanwhile, 100 miles inland, the Congaree Swamp National Park is the site of one of the world’s most extraordinary light shows. Three North American species of fireflies flash synchronously with their companions for a couple of weeks in the spring (sort of like a disco, for those of you who were around in the ‘80s). Sammy Fretwell with The State reports that one of these species occurs in the Congaree. The article states that Smoky Mountains National Park is the most well-known location to experience synchronized flashing, but I can report that it also occurs at DuPont State Forest near Brevard, North Carolina.
Generating your own light is a wonderful thing. Former Congressman Gresham Barrett writes in The Hill that this is not unappreciated by some Republicans. Congressman Barrett is the founder of a group called the Palmetto Conservative Solar Coalition. In this op-ed, he makes an eloquent case for the wide array of benefits solar energy provides, and he calls on other conservatives to embrace the technology (and many of them have).
Like former upstate Congressman Bob Inglis, who has persuasively argued that Republicans should be leading the charge on climate change, Congressman Barrett represents the perspective that there is nothing conservative about destroying the environment by not deploying the cleanest, most renewable energy available, especially when said deployment comes with a vast array of economic benefits and opportunities.
As this next article from Christian Science Monitor reports, Messrs. Inglis (who is featured in the article) and Barrett are not alone in that point of view. The Monitor explains that Republicans are increasingly joining the ranks of Americans who view climate change as an existential issue and support action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late. As a South Carolinian, I’m particularly proud of the fact that our former members of Congress have become such strong voices for reason in this uniquely unreasonable time. The article also links to a difficult quiz on climate science. Test your knowledge!
The bottom line is that only an apologist for special interests, or an ideological madman, could argue against clean energy and environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, one of these (take your pick) may be an apt description of our new EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. Administrator Pruitt has variously alleged that climate change is not real, that it is not well enough understood to act against, and that mitigation measures will harm the coal industry. (Only the last statement is remotely true, but the coal industry is probably doomed regardless of what climate policies the U.S. does or does not adopt.)
This article from the Washington Post reports that scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, MIT, the University of Washington in Seattle and Remote Sensing Systems have just published a study refuting Mr. Pruitt’s confirmation testimony that warming is “leveling off.” Sadly, this is unlikely to make a dime’s worth of difference. The Administrator is operating in what has been called a “fact-free” and logic-free environment. But, more Republicans lining up on the side of climate action may very well influence the Administration’s policy for the better!
Google is not operating in a fact-free environment, but their defense of withdrawing 1.5 million gallons of water a day from the Middendorf aquifer, in this op-ed from the Post and Courier, will not win any prizes for scientific rigor.
The authors describe the aquifer as a “flowing underground river.” This might be a helpful analogy for those of us who are familiar with rivers that flow about 10 feet a year, through limestone and other permeable rock formations. Or with rivers where pumping water produces an 80-foot-deep depression in the surface of the river just around the point of withdrawal… (This reminds me of “The Ten Commandments,” in which Moses, played by Charlton Heston, parts the Red Sea and the Israelites escape between two towering walls of water: YouTube: Moses parts the sea)
We’ll see shortly what decision DHEC makes on the application.
Finally, here is my question of the week: Is it possible that conservationists, community activists, transportation advocates and other well-meaning citizens are being duped by a ploy I’ll call the “planning stratagem?” Imagine this conversation:
Road building representative: “What can we do to silence all of these citizens calling for other ways to get around, like more sidewalks and crosswalks, safe bike lanes, and mass transit?”
Fictional elected representative: “We can initiate planning processes that take years to complete, involve extensive public opinion polling, dozens of meetings and hearings, and produce attractive illustrated documents inches thick, summarizing conclusions and laying out the plans.”
Road building representative: “I don’t understand. How will that allow us to make sure roads, perpetually congested with thousands of automobiles, remain the only transportation option available?”
Fictional elected representative: “We won’t provide any funding to implement the plans.”
Road building representative: “But how long will citizens tolerate the lack of action?”
Fictional elected representative: “If we continue to launch new planning initiatives, apparently forever.”
Ok, I’ll admit this conversation probably never happened, but consider the following articles.
The first one, from the Coastal Observer, reports that the Georgetown County Council has approved a bicycle plan, but has delayed allocating any money to implement said plan. Not even the pitiful $1 million requested by the sole member of the council who appears to support bicycle safety.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
The master plan will allow the county to require developers to install infrastructure if their property includes designated bike routes. It also sets out projects and priorities that will allow the county to seek grants for bikeways. (My emphasis)
It is safe to say that, based on this article, there will not be one additional mile of bicycle infrastructure in Georgetown County for the next decade.
Meanwhile, 60 miles down the coast, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) has released a $200,000 bicycle pedestrian plan that envisions all sorts of beneficial improvements to accommodate bicyclists and walkers in the tri-county region. There were public hearings, surveys and a formal presentation of the plan.
But again, no money. The BCDCOG’s Vonnie Gilbreth is quoted saying, “I hope it leads to more funding.” Sadly, in the words of Dr. Benjamin Akande, hope is not a strategy.
The following editorial from the Post and Courier makes a clear and compelling case for implementation.
Indeed, more than 90 percent of respondents to a Walk Bike BCD survey said they would like tax dollars to be spent on bicycle and pedestrian facilities. But only about a third said they felt that walking and biking are safe in current conditions.
That’s hardly a misguided impression. In 2014, South Carolina tragically ranked among the 10 deadliest states nationwide for both bicycle and pedestrian fatalities, and there are hundreds of non-fatal crashes in the tri-county region each year.
The solution is straightforward — better, safer, more convenient infrastructure and a culture that encourages respectful sharing of the road.
You can’t argue with that, but as David Slade notes, we’ve seen dozens of bicycle and pedestrian plans, resolutions and proclamations developed and passed over the years with great fanfare (take Charleston’s “Complete Streets” program, for example), but we have almost nothing to show for it. (Take the bicycle lane on the Ashley River bridge, for example.)
Finally, this article from the Post and Courier reports on meetings between Riverland Terrace residents on James Island and South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), whose proposal to bump up the power to the neighborhood threatens the beautiful avenue of oaks that makes the community so distinctive. Why not bury the power lines? It’s too expensive. And… there is no funding.
According to Charleston County Council member Joe Qualey, “We’ve been looking for some funding.”
Here is my question: Why was funding not a problem when the DOT decided – without a public opinion poll, without facilitated meetings, without extensive citizen participation, and with nothing more than a one page notification – to slaughter 28 miles of trees in the median of I-26?
My answer: This is what DOTs, and utilities, and counties and cities, do. They cut trees down, build roads, add lanes and otherwise lavish money on one mode of transportation. (The one exception is repairing potholes, where money is not lavished…)
And, yes, they may spend $50,000 or $100,000 every so often developing plans for other modes of travel, but at this point, the number of projects that actually get built is vanishingly small. So, the next time someone announces a planning exercise to improve the quality of life in the community, ask him to show you the money first!
One could imagine that this double standard – where destroying nature and neighborhoods for new roads and utility lines is a use of right, but preserving and enhancing quality of life and the environment is a Herculean task – is a national phenomenon. But, this next article from the Chicago Tribune, reporting on a $1 billion (with a “b”) renovation of the Union Station Amtrak facility, proves that not to be the case.
The head of the project team has this to say about the creative, public-private partnership (a structure our new president reportedly favors):
“It (the current station) is something you want to walk by fast,” O’Donnell said. “And that’s the opportunity. What we want to have is outward-facing retail and a very comfortable pedestrian experience. From the developer’s perspective, that’s the first goal, to create a sense of place and make it very comfortable and inviting.”
This is a novel idea! Sense of place, pedestrian accommodation… And the most important thing is that they have a funding plan in place. Contrast this to the new CARTA intermodal center for the tri-county region, on which a grand total of $14 million will be spent, if they can come up with another $2 million.
Enough griping! The lesson is that follow-though is everything, and that there must be political consequences for politicians who pretend to support quality of life and conservation measures, but then fail to produce the money to enact them.
Finally, finally, some grand plans that really were implemented, with disastrous consequences. Doug Pardue, with the Post and Courier, has produced a superb, extensive piece on the Savannah River Site, formerly known as “the bomb plant,” near Aiken. The money spent here, in today’s dollars, boggles the mind. What also boggles the mind is the cost of eventually cleaning the radioactive and hazardous chemical waste on this enormous facility – if it is even possible.
It is worth reading this series to better understand the mistakes of the past – when the single-minded pursuit of a single goal (military preparedness) caused decision-makers to run roughshod over the environment and human communities.
I hope you enjoyed this beautiful Memorial Day weekend!