Previous Work

Recommendation 5-20 of the Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan states “Beaufort County should anticipate and plan for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise” (Beaufort County 2010, p. 5-34). However, climate scenarios for temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise present a wide range of possible climate futures for the coastal Carolinas. Because of these changing climate stresses, coastal governments in the Carolinas must think about adapting to climate change, but have little guidance from climate models beyond knowing that, overall, the coast will continue to experience droughts and floods, and that the rate of sea level rise will accelerate, but at an unknown rate. In this project, Beaufort County teamed up with the South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium (SCSGC), the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI), North Carolina Sea Grant (NCSG), and the Carolinas Integrated Sciences & Assessments (CISA) to explore how changes in planning could increase Beaufort County’s resilience, or its ability to respond to a wide range of climate futures. SCSGC, SERI, NCSG, and CISA ("the research team") used a flexible process that incorporates scientific information with decision-makers’ and stakeholders’ local knowledge, ensuring that the final product suggests solutions that are tailored to Beaufort County’s needs.

To begin, the research team conducted background interviews with 15 local decision-makers and stakeholders to hear their concerns about climate change and sea level rise in Beaufort County. Then, the research team convened the local contacts together or a focus group using the Vulnerability and Consequences Adaptation Planning Scenario (VCAPS) process. The group held two meetings on August 26-27, 2013 in Beaufort County. The VCAPS process begins by allowing participants to learn about potentially relevant climate hazards. First, Dr. Greg Carbone, Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina, spoke about changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise that may impact the area. Next, Dr. Jessica Whitehead of NCSG facilitated two group discussions about the effect these hazards may have on the community, including decisions that reduce negative impacts as well as those that take advantage of the benefits. In real time, Dr. Seth Tuler of SERI converted their discussion into a structured diagram and displayed it for the group via projector. Using a chain of cause-and-effect, the diagram documents the relationship among climate impacts, management consequences, and potential solutions considered by the group (Figures 1 and 2). The Beaufort County focus group decided to consider climate change as it affects two important issues: stormwater management and sea level rise planning. The diagrams generated by the Beaufort County focus group are summarized below. 

Stormwater and planning (Figure 1)
Because Beaufort County has extensive and recent experience in addressing stormwater, the group first addressed the potential impacts of altered rainfall and development patterns on stormwater management. Both stressors needed to be considered simultaneously because stormwater retention designs are based on historic data, but the patterns of future rainfall may continue to reflect more intense rainfall events or wet periods punctuated by droughts, making retention systems less effective. 

Development increases the amount of impervious surfaces and reduces vegetation that takes up water. This can ultimately reduce water quality and increase the volume of water flowing over land surfaces and roads. The water may collect in stormwater retention ponds, but if ponds reach capacity or ditches are not functioning as designed, flooding may occur. Flooding can cause property damage, and the resulting flow into marshes carries sediments and contaminants that reduce water quality and negatively affect shellfish and crustaceans that are culturally and commercially significant in Beaufort County. Participants also expressed concerns about ponds during times of drought. They wanted to know if harmful algal blooms with human health impacts, like those observed in Florida, could begin to occur in Beaufort County. Homeowners and property managers could treat ponds during droughts to reduce these algal blooms, but participants worried that such treatments could also have negative impacts on shellfish and crustaceans once rainfall resumes and ponds overflow. 

The group noted several public and private sector actions that could reduce some of the negative 
consequences of changing rainfall and development in Beaufort County. Retrofitting existing stormwater infrastructure and adding additional infrastructure would help improve buffering capacity. For example, low impact development reduces flow. Some of these practices can be expensive and will drive up development costs, but they could be effective and efficient in areas of the County that become more highly urbanized. The group noted that the presence of improved infrastructure in itself may attract increased development and urbanization, but that allowing more dense development in infill areas may offset higher stormwater costs by reducing other development costs (e.g., reduced sprawl). Participants felt it was important to acknowledge that stormwater retention ponds are important to development as an amenity (i.e., they create waterfront property) in addition to their function to treat runoff and reduce flooding, and that pond management is approached as such. Public education about stormwater was mentioned several times as an important way to reduce runoff and improve water quality, but the target groups for education are diverse and would need to be approached in different ways. For instance, lawn care providers may be interested in the incentives of greener grass and improved client satisfaction, while other groups may be more engaged during the business permitting process. Finally, the County could use GIS to create a map of undeveloped areas and stormwater flows that may be useful in the permitting process. 

Sea level rise and planning (Figure 2)
In the second session, the group discussed the impacts of sea level rise and potential solutions. Sea level rise is specifically mentioned in the 2010 Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan, which recommends that it be considered in future land use planning. In their review of the impacts, participants included permanent flooding (inundation) and tidal/storm-surge based flooding. Participants pointed out that water level may increase both on the ocean front and on the inlet/marsh side of coastal land.

The water level can cause periodic flooding or permanent land loss through erosion or inundation (water level becomes permanently higher than the land). Higher water levels contribute to beach erosion. While the majority of the county’s beaches are state or municipal in jurisdiction, the group considers them assets to the county as tourist attractions and barriers against storm surge. Participants discussed how increased water level on the inlet/marsh side may cause flooding of low lying areas. Flooded roads may cause reduced access and damage to utilities buried underneath. Flooded septic systems, sewer systems, and agricultural areas may yield public health consequences. Permanent inundation will eventually swallow natural maritime forests and hammocks, leading to the loss of wildlife habitat and changing species populations. The damage to salt marsh grasses will reduce the effectiveness of setback buffers as human settlement blocks grass migration. Consequently, water quality may deteriorate and reduce the potential for fishing (commercial & subsistence). Participants noted that permanent inundation will reduce the availability of developable lots, displacing vulnerable populations and leading to the continued decline of Gullah culture in particular. Damage to beaches, roads, and utilities can increase the demand on governmental services even as the reduction of property value and tourism leads to reductions in tax revenue. The group believes this collective property damage may induce a loss of property value or perceived value (i.e. investment potential). Over time, participants are concerned this may cause dramatic changes in Beaufort County’s society as culture, jobs, population, tax revenue, and business is lost.

The group noted several planning functions which could be used to reduce the impact of sea level rise. One set corresponds to a recommendation in the Comprehensive Plan: “anticipate sea level rise.” First, the group wanted to know which areas are most likely to flood in the future. Second, they wanted to have more information regarding the flow of water through channels. This data would allow the county to focus its response where sea level rise and storm surge would hit hardest. They also proposed identifying positive examples of local communities that have become better prepared. Their example could be imitated by other communities.

Another set of proposals suggests changes to the built infrastructure and regulatory environment. For example, they suggested that development setbacks should be maintained when accumulated sand creates new land. However, they noted that beach renourishment will continue to be a financially viable option for the beachfront at Hilton Head Island. The participants gravitated towards a proposal to provide legal disclosure to purchasers of risky property. The 2010 Beaufort County Comprehensive Plan recommends that this disclosure declare that the county is, “not committed to stabilizing property or maintaining private roads and causeways by constructing seawalls, levees, or other devices.” Furthermore, they proposed funding structures and tax districts to help property owners in transition, higher road elevations, better regulations for septic systems, and more affordable housing. Participants said that regional partnerships could be used to better accommodate population shifts away from low
elevation land.