Rapid development across the county has impaired some of our local waterways. This means oysters cannot be harvested due to water quality concerns. This requires both a technical fix and a long-term fix. The technical fix is in storm water engineering and design; but perhaps most importantly, the long-term fix is a land use solution that involves planning for growth in the right places. Current projects of interest include aggregate storm water impacts on Lady’s Island and St Helena, the Okatie Crossings project in Hardeeville and continued growth and redevelopment in the Town of Bluffton.
When we talk about water quality, we have to think about land use. If the single most important attribute of a clean river is an undeveloped watershed, we have to consider how changing, or developing that land, impacts the watershed – and how decline in water quality can be mitigated or prevented all together as development pressure challenges the coast.
Studies over the past decade converge on a central point: When more than 10 percent of the acreage of a watershed is covered in roads, parking lots, roof tops, and other impervious surfaces, the rivers and streams within those watersheds become seriously degraded. Pre-eminant researcher Fred Holland, who we are lucky lives locally, says at 10% “I wouldn’t eat the oysters”
What does this mean for the health of coastal waters? By virtually every measure, the streams, creeks, marshes and rivers that are surrounded by hardened watersheds are less diverse, less stable, and less productive than those in natural watersheds.
So what can we do? The Conservation League will work with municipalities, the counties and developers to ensure new development plans reduce the impact of impervious surface like rooftops and driveways and are in the right location. This means directing development away from the headwaters of sensitive rivers and toward already developed areas.
An example of this principle at work is the Bluffton Township Watershed Plan. The Bluffton Watershed Plan was developed to showcase the science behind the use of “transferable development rights” (TDRs) for shifting density away from highly sensitive headwaters to less sensitive areas. We can significantly reduce pollutants in the May River by transferring density away from sensitive areas and accommodating density in the right places. Bluffton Town Council has adopted a May River Watershed Action Plan. The Conservation League continues to work with this group on the ever-present challenge of preventing further damage and ultimately restoring healthy rivers.
As we accommodate growth, we must change the way we build our communities on the regional scale. Tools to do so include urban growth boundaries, infrastructure planning, strong zoning codes and land conservation. If we build more densely in appropriate areas we can preserve strategic areas in the interest of water quality.
There are powerful political forces working against land use reform, including political inertia, fragmentation of government, and public ambivalence toward cities. It will take strong leadership for our cities, towns, and metropolitan regions to redirect the trajectory of growth.
Making the link between land use reforms and the health of our coastal estuaries should serve as a compelling reason for that leadership to emerge and succeed and we will work toward that outcome.