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Pawleys: Both sides turn to science in groin fight

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

State regulators will continue to take public comments for another week on Georgetown County’s request for a permit to build a 205-foot-long rock groin on the south end of Pawleys Island.

The Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management will have 90 days to make a decision once the Bureau of Water Quality certifies the project.

Speakers at a hearing last week differed over whether a new groin is the way to protect and preserve the county parking lot and the access it provides to the beach. Two dozen area residents and officials spoke on the permit request.

The county and the town of Pawleys Island say the groin is necessary to prevent erosion, and that the beach will benefit from nourishment with upland sand. Residents of Prince George, on the south side of Pawleys Island, along with conservation groups and state and federal environmental agencies, said the project is unnecessary, and will damage downdrift beaches and their wildlife habitat.

Christopher Stout, the project manager for Coastal Resources, said he didn’t hear any information at the hearing that wasn’t already in the record.

State law allows groin construction to protect public parks on beaches with “high rates” of erosion after “thorough study” determines there will be no effect on adjacent beaches.

But the regulations don’t specify what makes an erosion rate high or how much study qualifies as thorough, said Bill Eiser, an oceanographer with Coastal Reources.

“This will require some judgment on the part of staff,” he said.

The annual “State of the Beaches” report that Eiser wrote says the south end of Pawleys Island is “chronically eroded.” That, and photos that show the dune in front of the parking lot eroded by storms in 2007, were sited by the county as evidence the project is needed.

Fran Way, the project engineer for Applied Technology and Management, said there are scientists on both sides of the issue of whether groins damage downdrift beaches, but said the evidence from the existing 23 groins on Pawleys Island shows that a new groin will have a minimal impact.

“Debidue [Beach] has been reasonably healthy,” Way said. “Even with those updrift groins on Pawleys.”

Orrin Pilkey, a retired coastal geology professor at Duke University, said the model used to estimate the downdrift impact is flawed. For one thing, it doesn’t account for storms. “Storms change everything,” he said. “Storms do most of the work in moving beaches about.”

And he said it is hard to get an unbiased opinion on data that comes from monitoring the impact of groins, a condition of groin permits, because proponents always explain bad results as “unique events.”

“You need some objective individual from Kansas,” he said.

Pilkey admitted his opposition to the groin is based on experience not data. “I wouldn’t trust any statement about what downdrift impact would be,” he said.

Richard Moore, a retired biology professor at Coastal Carolina University and a property owner at Prince George, said there was no proof that erosion was threatening the parking lot. He said the groin will add to problems with rip currents and threaten wildlife habitat. Sand used to renourish the beach after the groin is built will be coarser than existing beach sand, and Moore said that will alter the slope of the beach.

Phil Schneider, a retired professor of environmental ethics at Coastal Carolina, called the issue “an ethical dilemma.” But he said he believed the facts support the need for a groin.

A sea turtle nested last week on the south end, in sand placed on the spit during a beach nourishment project last year. Schneider, a volunteer turtle monitor on Pawleys Island for the last 12 years, said the nest shows the groin project and associated beach nourishment won’t impact the threatened sea turtles.

Schneider said the fact that there is a large sand delta on the south end of the island shows the existing groins haven’t prevented sand from moving south.

Michael Walker, a mainland resident, said he understood that the science is in conflict. “I suggest we put science aside,” he said.

The county needs to maintain viable access to the beach, especially for people who can’t afford to live on the ocean, he said.

“Please don’t forget the science,” said Jerry Odom, a former chemistry professor and director of the University of South Carolina Development Foundation.

He said erosion is threatening the creekfront at Prince George, where the foundation owns a large tract. “We don’t want to do anything to cause it to get worse,” he said.

Phillip Lammonds, a Prince George resident, said he came to oppose the permit like most of his neighbors. But he said after listening to the scientists and engineers he was wavering.

He said a new groin might stabilize Pawleys Inlet, which has migrated 1,300 feet south in 10 years. The sand delta now forming in the inlet would end up on the Prince George side of the creek and slow erosion that’s cutting into the maritime forest of live oaks.

“Listening here, a lot of people have valid points,” he said.

County Council members Glen O’Connell and Austin Beard and Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis urged the state to issue the permit to protect the public access.

“Public access to the beach is scarce and must be protected and preserved,” O’Connell said.

Otis cited a Corps of Engineers study for a beach nourishment project on the entire south end of the island. “The length of the groins along Pawleys Island’s beachfront is ineffective in trapping sediment,” the report says.

Members of the Sierra Club, League of Women Voters and the Coastal Conservation League spoke against the permit.

Amy Armstrong, staff attorney with the S.C. Envrionmental Law Project, which represents those groups, said a Florida court found the computer model used to predict the impact of the proposed groin was useless in predicting the impact of a beach nourishment project in Palm Beach.

The model provided “a rough mirror image” of what actually happened on the shore, Armstrong said.

But even if the model worked, “they still predict there are going to be downdrift impacts,” she said. Those will be on the spit below the parking lot, which Armstrong called, “the best part of the beach.”

“That’s what we’re going to potentially lose,” she said.

Pawleys Island property owners said they believe the groin system has protected their south end lots and a new groin will protect the parking lot with little impact. They also said it would help protect swimmers from rip currents created by Pawleys Inlet.

Tom Myers said Midway Fire and Rescue has had 46 near drownings or drownings on the south end in the last five years. A new groin “would help eliminate these tragedies,” he said.

“If it saves one life, it will be well worth it,” said Howard Ward.

Coastal Resources will take written comments until July 9 at 927 Shine Ave., Myrtle Beach, SC 29577.

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