South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Erosion control sea walls spur complaints from sea turtle nesting monitors
June 28th, 2016

By Bo Petersen

Groups have complained to the state that erosion-control devices in front of Ocean Club Villas in Wild Dunes and other beachfront properties are impeding sea turtle nesting. Groups have complained to the state that erosion-control devices in front of Ocean Club Villas in Wild Dunes and other beachfront properties are impeding sea turtle nesting.

That’s the nub of a complaint to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control by two environmental groups concerning experimental “wave dissipation devices” installed in front of Wild Dunes properties to stave off severe erosion that is threatening condos and houses.

The device consists of vertically set pipes and connecting strip panels that leave openings. The idea is to break up the storm waves that cause the worst beach erosion but allow water and fine sand to pass back and forth between the pipes, simulating the flow on an unobstructed beach. It does not prevent erosion, but keeps it in check.

The problem is, the devices were designed to be removed to prevent the turtle problems. To remove and reset them during the test period would require getting the state to approve the reset each time, according to DHEC.

The state is re-evaluating.

“DHEC is currently working with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to assess the situation and obtain guidance on the impact,” said Jennifer Read, chief communications officer. But it might soon be a moot point. The test period for the devices only runs until the end of July.

Whether or not they are removed, remain in place for a longer study or the regulations are changed to allow them could well depend on the results so far.

The walls as they stand technically are not legal. State law prohibits seawalls in most cases, but state legislative action mandated they be allowed as a study. The first of them was placed in 2014. Sections have been removed and reset, added to or taken away since.

The complaint filed by the S.C. Environmental Law Project is a 60-day notice, essentially an intent to sue if the problem isn’t addressed. It stems from complaints from a sea turtle nesting watch program on Harbor Island, near Beaufort. But on Isle of Palms, where tiers of the walls protect the Ocean Club Villas and a long line of the wall protects a neighborhood of houses down the beach, the devices evidently also have daunted loggerheads coming ashore to lay eggs.

“The idea behind these structures was that they could be easily removed and that hasn’t been done. They are inhibiting turtle nesting,” said attorney Amy Armstrong of the law project. The group is representing the S.C. Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club. Loggerheads and other nesting turtles are threatened or endangered species.

“If (the turtles) can’t make it (to nesting sites) they’re going to release their clutches into the ocean and those hatchlings would be lost. It’s a pretty clear violation if you’re doing something to impede their ability to nest,” she said.

Tim Mays, The Citadel engineering professor who is sponsoring testing of the devices for their local designer Deron Nettles, said he would prefer to remove the devices between extraordinary high tide and wave periods to allow natural settling of sand as well as allow turtles to move.

“It was advertised as a temporary fix in case of a big storm that would be turtle-friendly,” said Barb Bergwerf of the Islands Turtle Team. “What has happened to my mind is it has become a permanent installation.” She said it could trap turtles behind it.

Brian Hall, Ocean Club Villas property owners president, said the devices likely keep the turtles from nesting in a dangerous situation, where there are no dunes left, virtually beneath the building in its carport area. So much of the volatile eroding beach is gone in front of the villas that, without the walls, storm waves have washed into the carport.

The device is the latest in a long line of “trip wall” ideas to protect beaches from erosion, a list that includes solutions like concrete discs and artificial seaweed, some of which just haven’t worked very well. But so far the study team is pleased with how well the walls have performed.

They have slowed erosion at the study sites, protected the buildings and preserved the sand landward that otherwise would have more quickly lost to erosion, device team attorney Matt Hamrick said.

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