On Tuesday, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded nearly $1.2 million from its National Coastal Resilience Fund to Parris Island and partner organizations -- the Coastal Conservation League, The Sustainability Institute, PEW Charitable Trusts and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The plan is to use the money to construct more than 4,500 wire oyster reefs to cover nearly two acres along Beaufort County waterways, including near Parris Island. Another 1.3 acres will consist of loose and bagged oyster shells. It's a natural, self-sustaining solution called living shorelines that will help mitigate flooding and erosion on the base, the historic military staple that trains nearly 20,000 recruits a year and pulls hundreds of millions into the local economy.
While a benefit to Parris Island's protection, the project will also serve the larger Beaufort County community. Building and placing living shorelines will help keep waters clean, build up salt marshes, create wildlife habitats and support important local resources, such as the commercial fishing industry.
Parris Island is "putting a real emphasis on planning for the future and acknowledging that resilience plays a huge role in how long they are able to train Marines on the base," said Rachel Hawes, the Coastal Conservation League's land, water and wildlife project manager.
Recycled oyster shells bundled in wire and placed near Parris Island's shoreline will act as reefs. In time, those man-made oyster reefs will build back the salt marshes that work to slow erosion and stabilize shorelines. It's a natural solution that preserves the island's ecology, the partners say. Oyster shells can filter upland runoff and act as habitats for local critters, birds and fish.
The bundled reefs and the loose oyster shells are expected to build up the marsh and other habitats, which would protect about 390 acres overall.
The plan calls for volunteers and the SCDNR, with The Sustainability Institute's support, to build reefs along Beaufort County waterways -- on the Beaufort River, Battery Creek and Archers Creek, which would work to protect Parris Island, Naval Hospital Beaufort, Fort Frederick Cultural Heritage Reserve, and U.S. 21.
"I think it's long term if the reef can become self-sustaining and help to provide that coastal resilience for the locations," said Michael Hodges, an oyster restoration biologist with the DNR. The purpose of the program "is to create these self-sustaining reefs so that we can construct them and then Mother Nature does the rest."
Hodges, who manages the community-based restoration through the state's South Carolina Oyster Recycling and Enhancement Program, said accomplishing a project of this magnitude will take hundreds of volunteers "getting their hands dirty" over the years.
While it's not just DNR putting the sweat equity into this project, the funding will pay for two additional DNR staff members who will handle the project.
Work is expected to kick off Jan. 1, 2023, with active restoration happening for the first three years and the final year for monitoring the success, Hodges said. Those from the community who want to get involved should look out for volunteer opportunities or reach out through the website score.dnr.sc.gov
Combating rising seas
Without intervention, a worst-case-scenario sea level rise prediction shows that three-quarters of Parris Island's 8,000 acres will be underwater before the end of this century, according to a 2016 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists
Another study, conducted by the The Center for Climate & Security in 2018, noted that if action isn't taken, fewer than 15 years stand between water capsizing the single causeway leading to the depot's entrance.
While scientists say the base has a limited lifespan because of predicted sea level rise, base leaders are reluctant to ever say the depot will shut down. However, a 2021 Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience assessment of the island's adjusted master plan projects included responding to "sea level rise and effects of climate change." And largely, the Department of Defense is not backing down from addressing climate change impacting its posts.
"Extreme weather events are already costing the Department billions of dollars and are degrading mission capabilities," a 2021 Department of Defense report read, adding that climate change's effects will be "even more consequential" for U.S. military installations if they are not confronted.
Even before partnering with nonprofits to find a way to fund living shorelines, Parris Island responded incrementally and with an environmentally conscious touch, raising some roads 2 feet, and planted an abundance of native plants to absorb stormwater runoff. The depot does not have plans in place for a seawall.
Former Brig. Gen. Julie Nethercot called those projects the "art of the small."
In a Tuesday email, Parris Island Environmental Division Director Tracey Spencer wrote the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation "grant funding provides us the opportunity to continue our art-of-the-small" by using natural methods to enhance the base's resiliency.
Will living shorelines stand up to the effects of a Category 5 hurricane? No, Hawes said. And are living shorelines the only way to create coastal resilience? Also, no. But Hawes and Parris Island partners say this project spans further than protecting the over-a-century-old depot.
It's an opportunity to keep building up the county's important wetlands that support other critical resources, such as the fishing industry, Hawes noted.
Parris Island "is the Marine Corps' second-oldest post and we are proud to be its caretakers," said Maj. Philip Kulczewski, the depot's spokesperson. "Nature-based solutions like this help both the surrounding Lowcountry communities and Parris Island."
© 2022 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)
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