Charleston flooding increases; SELC on the front lines. Literally.

An aerial view taken from a Coast Guard helicopter shows the ongoing effects of flooding in the days after Hurricane Joaquin hit Charleston, S.C. in October 2015. (© U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Stephen Lehmann )

The water is rising in the Lowcountry.

Charleston, SC, is one of many coastal cities that has seen a surge in nuisance flooding in the past 30 years, according to a pair of climate-change studies recently profiled in the New York Times. Much of South Carolina is still recovering from last October’s catastrophic flooding, and unfortunately, scientists expect that flooding along the coast will become a larger problem as the ocean continues to rise.

“Nuisance flooding is flooding that closes coastal area roads, overwhelms storm drains, and compromises infrastructure,” according to Climate Central’s report, “The Human Fingerprints on Coastal Floods.”

Coastal cities like Charleston are facing more floods than ever before. Long exposed to coastal storms and surging tides, many Atlantic cities are now prone to so-called “sunny-day” or “nuisance” flooding. That, the researchers and scientists say, is when water floods coastal cities under clear skies. The combination of rising sea levels, unusually high tides, and sometimes sinking land can be to blame, according to the study’s authors.

The October flooding in South Carolina was caused by what officials called a “1,000-year rain event,” meaning a storm like that could be expected once every thousand years. Nuisance flooding, the scientists argued, is a less dramatic but far more serious problem. It could lead to the eventual abandonment of coastal cities.

In a three-decade period ending in 1984, Charleston experienced 132 flood days, according to the report. In the following 30-year period, that number jumped to 496. The bulk of the increase, according the scientists, is traced to climate change caused by people.

Benjamin Strauss, one of the study’s authors, told the New York Times: “It’s not the tide. It’s not the wind. It’s us. That’s true for most of the coastal floods we now experience.”

Attorneys in SELC’s Charleston office are, literally, on the front lines of this issue. Like most people in the region, their office and homes are only feet above sea level, and they experience the road closures and headaches of flooding first hand.

“SELC’s Charleston office is addressing climate change and the resultant sea level rise on multiple fronts,” said Chris DeScherer, Managing Attorney. “First we are working to stop climate change itself, by breaking down legal barriers to zero carbon energy like solar and wind and to ramp up efficiency programs to reduce carbon intensity while lowering ratepayer bills.”

SELC helped draft Act 236, a pro-solar law enacted unanimously by the S.C. General Assembly in 2014. SELC also helped lead a campaign to stop construction of a new carbon-spewing coal plant near Florence and has taken legal action to ensure that coal plants clean up and internalize the costs of coal ash pollution.  All of these efforts, along with SELC’s vigorous opposition of Atlantic offshore drilling, should prevent the state’s carbon footprint from growing.

SELC is also addressing sea level rise already underway. 

For cities like Charleston, first settled as a Colonial seaport in the 1600s, encroaching waters threaten large swaths of the historic downtown. As coastal cities grapple with solutions for how to protect their downtowns, DeScherer says one key strategy for addressing sea level rise, which must be implemented right now, is to steer new development and new infrastructure away from low-lying areas. SELC is already hard at work to accomplish this objective.

SELC is opposing road projects like the planned nine-mile extension of the Mark Clark Expressway to Johns Island, which would damage wetlands and encourage more sprawling development patterns on flood-prone Johns Island. In addition, by keeping roads and other hardened structures away from our coastlines and marshlands, we can also allow for migration of coastal habitats and wildlife in the face of rising seas.

SELC is also fighting to preserve wetlands and natural areas that can buffer and absorb rising waters. In the Lowcountry, SELC has successfully challenged unlawful decisions by the Corps of Engineers to identify flood-buffering wetlands as “isolated” and not worthy of federal protection under the Clean Water Act, and we are also engaged in litigation to defend the newly promulgated Waters of the U.S. rule to maximize federal protection for wetlands throughout the Lowcountry and the rest of the country.

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