Posted on November 13, 2023
A plan to dredge 16.5 miles of natural and man-made channels through Murrells Inlet is under review by federal and state agencies. It is also under scrutiny by environmental groups who question the project’s impact on the saltmarsh and oyster beds.
Georgetown County is seeking permits to remove over 750,000 cubic yards of sediment from the channels to provide access to boats at all stages of the tide. The material would be disposed of in the ocean about four-tenths of a mile off Huntington Beach State Park.
If approved, this will be the first time placement of dredge spoils has been allowed in nearshore waters in South Carolina, according to GEL Engineering, which designed the project.
The project is estimated to cost $30 million to $35 million, said state Rep. Lee Hewitt, who has helped get $14.3 million in state funding for the project so far.
“If we don’t get the offshore spoils site, it could triple that cost,” Hewitt said. “It becomes a whole other project without that.”
GEL did additional studies over the last year after the Army Corps of Engineers raised concerns that the nearshore spoils could find their way back into the federal channel that it maintains. (The Corps is currently dredging that channel.)
“A lot of work, a lot of research has gone into it,” Hewitt said.
He said he was told the location of the spoils site, which covers just over 344 acres, will allow the silt to flow offshore and any sand to flow back onto the beach.
“It could end up with some additional sand on Huntington Beach,” Hewitt said.
Amy Armstrong, executive director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, met last week with Hewitt and the project engineer. She said she isn’t sure how to evaluate claims about the nearshore spoils disposal.
“He said they’ve never done this in South Carolina,” she said.
What is established through past litigation, Armstrong said, is that dredging has to stay at least 10 feet away from the marsh and oyster beds. That is intended to prevent the marsh and reefs from collapsing, or “sloughing,” into the dredged channels.
The permit application states that 1.5 acres of marsh and .16 acres of oyster beds will be impacted by the project. To mitigate that loss, Hewitt noted, the permit calls for restoring marsh and oyster beds in other parts of Murrells Inlet rather than purchasing mitigation credits.
That could include “living shoreline” projects or thin-layer placement to help the marsh keep pace with rising sea levels, he said.
“We’re going to spend that money in Murrells Inlet where it can help the estuary,” he said.
But Armstrong said the best solution would be to keep the dredging away from the marsh and oyster beds.
“Some of these channels that will be dredged have never been dredged before,” she said. “I feel very comfortable saying that’s something we’re going to object to.”
While she understands that there is a public benefit to keeping waterways navigable, she noted that portions of the project call for dredging that only benefits the waterfront property owners.
“Some of these dead-end channels where you’re trying to create access at all stages of the tide, that doesn’t meet the test,” she said. “They’re dredging everything that could possibly be dredged.”
Hewitt said the dredging is needed in an estuary that is “probably the most used estuary in the state.”
He also pointed out that a 2014 master plan for the Murrells Inlet watershed included dredging as a method to increase water quality. The plan cited data recorded around the Crazy Sister Marina in a previous dredging that showed an increase in fecal coliform bacteria immediately after the work was done when sediment was stirred up. The bacteria levels then dropped because the deeper water meant there was more exchange of fresh and salt water.
The permit calls for the work to be carried out over three years, starting in the fall of 2025.
“It’s a good plan and a thoughtful plan and one with very little impact,” Hewitt said.
The Corps of Engineers is taking public comments on the permit application through Nov. 30. The complete application can be found online.