South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

As state’s wetlands dwindle, South Carolina seeks new answer
November 26th, 2012

In the nearly 12 years since the U.S. Supreme Court eased federal protections on isolated wetlands, swampy South Carolina has talked at length about how to fill the gap and save these wildlife-rich bogs.

But every time someone proposes a new law to protect isolated wetlands, business groups complain and the Legislature shoots it down.

Now, state leaders are trying a different approach. Many want the state to set aside money to preserve isolated wetlands, rather than protect them through prohibitions on development.

A plan under discussion at the State House would use revenue from South Carolina’s deed recording fees to pay for buying wetlands or purchasing development rights from landowners. The money would come from the state Conservation Bank, which now is funded through deed recording fees.

The plan already is drawing skepticism from budget hawks at the State House as well as some environmentalists. But proponents say it may be the state’s best hope of saving a vanishing piece of the landscape.

The idea is to encourage property owners to protect wetlands, rather than pass tougher rules in a state where regulation is often considered a bad word.

“Whatever we come up with has got to be something that is practical, that we can get through the General Assembly,” said state Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Berkeley. “Otherwise, we’re just barking in the night and not accomplishing much.”

The wetlands purchase plan drew unanimous support earlier this month from a study committee Campbell chairs. His group, which includes lawmakers, business people and conservationists, is expected to make a recommendation for the Legislature to consider in 2013.

Isolated wetlands have sparked heated disagreements among lawmakers since the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which left preservation of these solitary bogs largely up to the states. While North Carolina, Virginia and Florida have measures to protect isolated wetlands, South Carolina never filled the gap as real estate interests fought tougher rules that would restrict development.

Scientists and conservationists say, however, that the isolated wetlands should be saved before many vanish under pavement or new houses and shopping malls. The issue is significant in South Carolina, which has one of the highest overall percentages of wetlands in the Southeast.

“They are important to keep our ecosystem healthy,” said Savannah River Ecology Lab scientist Whit Gibbons, a member of Campbell’s wetlands committee. “Either directly or indirectly, they provide the food base for much of the wildlife in our state.”

Unlike river swamps and salt marshes, isolated wetlands are soggy depressions that are not fed by creeks or linked directly to waterways, such as tidal estuaries. They range from small wet patches in the middle of farm fields to larger depressions filled with trees and shrubs that attract wildlife. Some of the state’s rare Carolina bays, oval-shaped depressions found almost exclusively in this part of the country, are isolated wetlands.

Many isolated wetlands dry up for parts of the year. This provides a perfect habitat for amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, to grow up in without the presence of predatory fish. Like other types of wetlands, isolated wetlands also control flooding by soaking up stormwater after heavy rains.

Through the centuries, development has depleted thousands of acres of wetlands in South Carolina. Many flood-prone areas, such as Five Points in Columbia, were built on marshy land. In the 1980s alone, South Carolina lost some 20,000 acres of wetlands, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report.

The impact

No one is sure how many acres of isolated wetlands exist in South Carolina, but past estimates by the state Department of Natural Resources placed the number at up to 500,000 acres, an amount approaching 15 percent of all wetlands in the Palmetto State.

More recent estimates indicate the amount of isolated wetlands or bays isn’t that high. A study conducted by University of South Carolina researcher Dan Tufford found that only 2 percent of the wetlands acreage he examined contained isolated depressions in four soggy counties near the border with North Carolina.

Regardless of the total number of isolated wetlands, they do not officially lose federal protected status until someone asks the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if permits are needed to fill the wetlands. At that point, the Corps studies the wetland and decides if it is isolated.

Source (external link)