With a 2-foot rise in sea level, the Beaufort County Airport runway on Lady’s Island will become vulnerable to flooding. With a 3-foot rise, the southeastern portion of the property likely would be flooded, leaving no access to the runway, according to a recently released report.
The Beaufort/Port Royal Sea Level Rise Task Force, made up of area residents, engineers and researchers, recently released its final report after more than a year of meetings and presentations with city councils, neighborhood groups and community members.
The report identified seven areas of concern, including the airport, where high exposure to flooding coincides with property, business, infrastructure and other community amenities, and offered recommendations for resiliency measures in each area.
The areas labeled as those of most concern were Boundary Street, North Street and Waters Edge, downtown historic Beaufort, Mossy Oaks and Southside Park, Cypress Wetlands, The Sands and adjacent areas of the Town of Port Royal, and the Beaufort County Airport.
The task force looked at the effects of sea level rise between 1 and 6 feet but determined that preparing for a 3-foot rise offered the most practical and achievable resilience options. At 3 feet, nearly 1,000 Beaufort residents will be at risk of flooding. At a 6-foot rise, the population at risk increases to a little more than 2,700.
Addressing airport concerns
In regards to the airport, the task force recommended elevating the runway and taxiway, improving water drainage infrastructure and elevating the location and access to hangars.
According to airport director Ron Rembold, the Federal Aviation Association does not account for possible vulnerabilities to sea level rise in design guidelines.
“I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to provide input when (the FAA) decides to move on it, but there’s not a lot we can do as one airport,” Rembold said.
Task force co-chairman Chris Marsh and Rembold sent a letter to the FAA Atlanta Airports District Office program manager in September 2015, voicing their concerns about the effect sea level rise could have on the airport.
The Beaufort Regional Airport is in the design phase for several future safety improvement plans, and the letter asked FAA to consider requirements to address the impacts of future sea level rise in the plan.
“The good thing is we’re talking about it,” Rembold said. “We hope the letter will help encourage the FAA to look into this and the effects on all coastal airports, because it impacts more than just us.”
Raising the level of the runway would be a very large and expensive project that would be difficult to implement, because the entire airport would have to be developed, he said.
“We’re always interested in people looking at these things, because I do think information like this is a good thing,” Rembold said. “... It’s just hard to get people to focus on something decades away.
“But I do hope (the report) will help get people thinking about this before we’re stuck with an urgent issue.”
Neither Rembold nor Marsh have heard any response from the FAA regarding the letter.
Localizing sea level rise impacts
The task force, which started meeting monthly on Jan. 5, was formed to address areas of vulnerability to sea level rise and develop adaptation strategies to address potential impacts.
But according to Marsh, it was also about putting residents at ease and explaining the difference between the local situation compared with other coastal communities.
In terms of residential areas, Beaufort and Port Royal are on higher elevation than other coastal communities in South Carolina, according to Marsh.
Comparing possible rising sea effects locally to the flooding of streets and highways in Charleston, Marsh said, “That’s what we never want to get to.”
“What we wanted to do is to have the community well-informed about our specific local situation, so when they read about other places they know how we compare to places like Charleston or New York City,” Marsh said. “We wanted them to recognize there are positives and things that can be done.
“This is not a ‘the sky the falling’ situation,” he said.
Since 1965, local sea level has risen about six inches in the area, the study said.
Another 1-foot rise would cover 2 percent of Beaufort and 1 percent of Port Royal, not including Parris Island. With a 3-foot rise, that jumps to 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
The report was “not made to be a blanket statement of how rising seas will affect the whole area,” Marsh said. Instead, it focuses on what can be done in each area of concern.
For instance, in downtown historic Beaufort, the task force recommends building enhanced bulkheads and applying for grants to complete an engineering study of the area to guide the most appropriate actions. In Mossy Oaks, recommendations included restricting development in drainage areas and in existing fresh or saltwater wetlands that will expand as sea level rises. And in the North Street and Waters Edge area, the task force recommended considering building codes that would require electric systems to be built 8 feet above ground.
Potential sea level rise (in feet)
Percentage of area flooded in Beaufort
Percentage of area flooded in Port Royal
Finding ways to make the public care
Sea level rise should not be a political issue dividing community members into liberal or conservative sectors, according to Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, who played an instrumental role in the task force.
Instead of using terms like ozone levels, melting glaciers or climate change, Keyserling said he prefers to focus on evidence community members can see, such as the water line rising on his neighbor’s dock after high seasonal tides occur each year.
“I think local government is really just about common sense, and common sense is seeing,” he said. “If people see (evidence of the rising sea) in their backyard or on their neighbors docks, then they’ll realize something needs to be done.”
In order to start a conversation around rising seas, the task force spent months setting up meetings and presentations with local organizations and neighborhood groups, as well as Port Royal and Beaufort councils, seeking support, guidance and input from those that have been or could be affected.
“We tried to tell people ‘We’re not trying to scare you, but your kids and grandkids are going to face a problem and we can help them by starting this conversation,’ ” Keyserling said. “People deal with rising sea level like they deal with diabetes — if you get treatment, you can live perfectly normal, but if you deny it, you’ll only get sicker.”
As next steps, Keyserling expects the task force to present the final report to city council later this summer in order to keep the conversation alive. After starting the conversation, the cities can begin considering applying for grants to commission engineering studies regarding the effects of rising seas in certain areas, he said.
“This issue we’re dealing with is one of the biggest the next generation will have to face,” he said. “We can’t wait. We have to have more personal stories, and we have to start talking about it.”