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Environment: Feds assess impact of Pawleys groin on sea turtles

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Construction of a 205-foot-long rock-and-concrete groin at the south end of Pawleys Island is likely to have an adverse effect on sea turtle nesting, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But any impact from the project “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the loggerhead sea turtle,” the agency’s field supervisor in Charleston wrote in a letter to permitting agencies last week.

The “biological opinion” from Fish and Wildlife is under review by the Army Corps of Engineers. It is one of the components that was missing a year ago when state and federal regulators told Georgetown County its permit application for the project was in jeopardy.

The county wants to build the groin in front of the popular beach access to protect the public parking lot from erosion. It first sought approval for the project in April 2009. It would be south of 23 existing groins that were built starting in the 1940s.

After a public hearing in July 2009, there was no further action on the permit. The corps and the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management said the county withdrew the application in January 2010, something county officials and its consultant said they knew nothing about.

In July 2010, the state gave the county six months to provide missing information in support of the application, including a biological assessment. That was received in January and the application was renewed in March.

The Fish and Wildlife Service opposed the groin, saying it would impact endangered and threatened species and that there was no evidence a groin was needed to protect the parking area.

Groins are built perpendicular to the beach to trap sand that moves in the current parallel to the shore. The groin was also opposed by environmental groups and property owners at Prince George, south of Pawleys Inlet, who said the groin would cause erosion on their beachfront by trapping sand.

Georgetown County plans to place 5,000 cubic yards of sand on the north side of the groin and says it will monitor the effects of the groin on “downdrift” beaches.

Although construction and beach nourishment projects both pose hazards to nesting sea turtles, Fish and Wildlife noted, the agency said the impacts can be mitigated.

“There are still some concerns there,” said Jennifer Koches, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife in Charleston. “The management plan has yet to be completed.”

Two other species that were an initial concern, the piping plover and seabeach amaranth, have been ruled out. The area is not nesting habitat for the plover, a species of shorebird. The seabeach amaranth, a plant, hasn’t been seen within a mile of the site in the last 15 years, according to the agency.

“We still have some concerns about impacts to sea turtle nesting habitat,” Koches said. “I don’t see that there’s been a total 180” in the agency’s position on the project.

The agency’s opinion includes a list of conservation measures, such as limiting construction to the winter to avoid sea turtle nesting and making sure the sand hauled to the site is compatible with the beach sand. The county plans to use sand from land in Murrells Inlet that it bought as a disposal site for dredge spoils from Murrells Inlet.

According to Fish and Wildlife, the county has agreed to one condition: It will put up a sign on the south end of Pawleys Island to educate beachgoers about sea turtles.

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