By Andrea Malloy, Interim Director of the South Coast Office, Coastal Conservation League
In August of 2009, the Coastal Conservation League created a watershed based planning tool for the greater Bluffton area. This tool is a map that uses the boundaries of a watershed as the starting point for planning. The map identifies the most critical areas in the watershed for preservation and proposes specific areas to build (and not to build) with the goal of protecting water quality in the May, Okatie, Colleton and New Rivers. Although this plan was Southern Beaufort County specific, the concept is not. The same principle – planning by watershed – can and should be applied in Northern Beaufort County. The Bluffton Watershed Plan was conceived as a response to the recent closure of oyster beds in the May River. The May River is only the latest waterway in Beaufort County to join the impaired list. There are currently 17 impaired waterways in Northern Beaufort County. If we hope to protect water quality in the Beaufort and Morgan Rivers, we would do well to view our plans within the framework of their respective watersheds – rather than the framework of municipal and county boundaries.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control ( DHEC ) just released their 2010 list of impaired waterways and they are doing their best to restore water quality where it is in their power to do so. For example, Battery Creek has seen improvements in regards to fecal coliform – with 5 out of 8 stations in Battery Creek now removed from the impaired waterways list. As DHEC works to evaluate and remedy the impairments in our waterways, we must do all we can to prevent further contamination. One very significant way to do this is to constrain the reach of our pavement and rooftops. Beaufort County residents are the most educated constituency concerning stormwater run-off than any community outside of Chesapeake Bay. As we replace natural areas with hard surfaces in a watershed, we increase both the amount of rainwater that flows into a waterway as well as the speed at which it travels into that waterway – picking up contaminants along the way. The watershed is the total area that “dumps” into a given river. Extensive studies of tidal creek habitats (like ours) have shown that when the rooftops and pavement cover more than 10% of the overall watershed area, water quality declines. There are certainly other contributors to water quality degradation – but this 10% threshold is an overshadowing one, and one that is completely within our power as citizens to address.
The good news is that keeping the impervious cover (rooftops and pavement) at or near 10% does not require saying no to development or to growth. It does mean saying we need to concentrate future growth where we already have “under-utilized pavement.” To accomplish this, we build houses closer together and we mix business, civic and residential all in one spot. As we redevelop the underperforming commercial strips, we redesign them for a combination of uses. There is a tremendous amount of under-utilized (and unattractive) parking lot frontage on much of Sea Island Parkway. It is inconvenient that our one-and-only bike shop is a death trap to reach by bike (through a hazardous parking lot). The focus of watershed planning is to identify where to build and to then do our best to concentrate our building there. This focus results in infill development rather than continuing to sprawl out with the addition of suburban style neighborhoods — adding yet more impervious surface to the Beaufort and Morgan River watersheds. This kind of statement generally provokes fear and opposition from those who prefer suburban life – it should not. Planning for a watershed is neither a condemnation of nor a threat to the existence of suburban life. There is currently an overstock of the standard suburban homes in our region set to outlast housing demands for some time. The option to live in a suburban setting is safely guaranteed for all who prefer that lifestyle. Infill and redevelopment within a watershed simply adds more diversity to the housing and lifestyle options offered by Beaufort County. For the last 50 years we have been building just one way, the too-often maligned suburban sprawl. The suburban pattern is a perfectly acceptable pattern, provided it is not the only pattern.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control is working hard to improve our water quality, we should not be making that work more difficult. As we plan for future growth, we must draw lines along the only boundary that matters to the water that defines our region – the watershed. The waterways have spoken and they have told us that if we want them to be pristine, we must limit the reach of impervious surface. This can be done, and it should be done. The water is why people come here and why they stay. We can invite them in and build for them, but only in a way that respects the rules of nature – rules that should not be in our capacity to bend. Mankind has tried to engineer our way around these rules for too long, and now the Chesapeake Bay serves Lowcountry crabs. Will our famous oyster roasts one day be dominated by Oregon oysters? Not if we plan for future growth with respect for our watersheds.