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Georgia’s Coastal Infrastructure Under Threat

By Bruce Dorminey

St. Simons Island, Georgia – The Friday before Independence Day, the main public pier on St. Simons Island is strangely empty. Among the few locals struggling with fishing bait or wrestling with their daily crosswords, sea level rise would appear to be the last thing on their minds. But the exposed “rip rap,” artificial walls of large loose rock, that lines the beach at low tide provides proof that someone in charge knows the hazards of beach erosion.

The public pier on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Credit: Bruce Dorminey.

“Tourism is our largest economic indicator and it does depend on the beaches,” said Woody Woodside, President of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce. “So, beach erosion would be a major issue. But with the current budget crunches, I don’t see beach renourishment as a high funding priority. Sea level rise has not been a top shelf issue here.”

But Jennifer Kline, a coastal hazards specialist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in nearby Brunswick, says her job entails working with local governments to make them aware of future sea level rise scenarios. She readily acknowledges the issue is not high on the general public’s list of concerns.

On neighboring Sea Island, which hosted the 2004 G-8 summit, some oceanfront properties still go for $6 million plus. Although only club members, residents and guests staying at the five star Cloister resort get past the privately-held island’s gate-house entrance, rising sea levels need no invitation. 

Even so, Sea Island Properties, which administers the sale of most real estate on the privately held Sea Island, refused to comment on the issue.        

“In another 25 years, when people start noticing their front yards disappearing, what are they going to do?” asks William Savidge, a chemical oceanographer at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. “Can you imagine homeowners walking into a property owners’ meeting saying, "listen we need to abandon this island to allow the salt marshes in?" My feeling is that there’s too much money at stake. The first impulse would be to put up seawalls. But seawalls cut off the marsh’s retreat [damaging the marshes.]”

On Skidaway Island, Savidge says there are roughly 4,000 real estate lots with an estimated median value of $500,000 dollars. On the island’s west side, he says, a new tree falls every couple of weeks because the area is literally eroding away.

Rising sea levels are already eroding beach nesting areas of federally-threatened Loggerhead sea turtles; some four to five hundred of which nest on Georgia’s coast each year. 

“With sea level rise, it will be more and more difficult for the turtles to recover,” said Gale Bishop, professor emeritus of geology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, who now spends his summers working with St. Catherine’s Island’s sea turtle program. “In previous eras, turtles just moved with the beaches, but now people are armoring the beaches and that takes out sea turtle habitat. It will be very difficult for them to find places to lay eggs and get them hatched.”

Bishop notes that for every millimeter rise in sea level, St. Catherine’s Island experiences about a meter of beach erosion, or about 1.5 to 3 meters per year. In 50 years time, he predicts lots of downed trees on St. Catherine’s, since erosion is cutting their root systems right out from under them. He says a meter of sea level rise would cut the size of the 23 square-mile island by at least half.

In another 75 years, Hurley says people’s homes on Savannah’s west side are not going to be habitable due to tidal flooding, creating some real engineering hurdles.

Although the ultimate answer in saving such infrastructure might seem to be reclaiming the ocean via levee-type structures, Kline says that’s not likely to happen on the Georgia coast. 

“A levee-style system would hinder marsh retreat and likely interfere with white shrimp and shorebird breeding grounds,” said Kline. Instead, Kline says that because Georgia’s marsh has the ability to migrate naturally, the state is promoting “Living Shoreline” projects that use natural materials to stabilize shorelines. 

Two such demonstration projects are underway now on Sapelo Island, involving the use of biodegradable mesh bags filled with oyster shells that can be used to replace artificial structures already in place, like beach bulkheads and rock wall barriers. 

“Within a short period of time, oysters start to grow on these shells,” said Kline. “This is a way to stabilize the shoreline naturally, while providing for good water quality and fish habitat.”