Partnership Journalism•November 17, 2022
As rising seas flood Charleston's fairways, its municipal golf course leads in adapting
By Elizabeth Miller (Climate Central) and Sonya Stevens (ABC4 Charleston)
Alanna Elder (Climate Central) contributed data reporting
This story was produced through a collaboration between ABC News 4 and Climate Central.
As the Charleston Municipal golf course's holes along the Stono River began flooding with high tides, Troy Miller, the course’s architect, could see something had to change. The turf was almost always wet enough to make for soggy swings, at best, and awash in seawater at worst.
“When we had high tides, they had to close the golf holes because there was actually standing water across those holes and they were impassable,” Miller said.
In 2018, the back nine was unplayable for more than half of July. There was no holding back the sea or stopping the thunderstorms, so course managers decided to give the water somewhere to go instead. They dug ponds for stormwater to drain into and used earth excavated from those ponds to raise holes that sidle up to the river.
“The renovation made the biggest difference in the world,” said Billy Wise, who has been golfing there since he was a kid and still tries to go three times a week—a habit made harder when the course started closing several times a month for flooding. “It’s a gem now. People can’t wait to get in and play this course.”
Links golf courses, designed to enjoy seaside views, undulating terrain over the dunes, and a fine texture and tight turf from the sandy soil and indigenous grasses along coastal South Carolina, face grim prospects with rising sea levels, more intense rainstorms, and slower moving hurricanes.
As pollution levels in the atmosphere continue to increase and seas rise and rainfall intensifies, the renovations to Charleston Municipal offer a case study in how to buy precious decades in protecting a vulnerable coastal golf course from the effects of climate change.
A Climate Central analysis combining elevation data with the latest sea level rise projections shows parts of some courses in Charleston are already vulnerable to yearly coastal flooding, with those vulnerable areas projected to expand rapidly through 2050. The implications reach major tourism industries for coastal communities, as well as quality of life and components of golfing history. Course managers have faced the choice to adapt, or suffer.
“In the Lowcountry, golf courses have an issue and that’s that part of what we like with our golf courses is we like them to be near marshes and we like them to have these beautiful kinds of vistas around them,” said Norman S. Levine, professor of geology and environmental geosciences at the College of Charleston. “Sea level rise will affect them and they’ll have to look at how their course is designed in order to make sure that they can stay—pardon the pun—above water.”
Problems ahead for those courses, Levine said, could include coastal erosion, hurricanes, more frequent and stronger storms, and rising tides.
As rising seas flood Charleston's fairways, its municipal golf course leads in adapting (WCIV)
“We’re already seeing these changes,” he said. The Santee Cooper GIS Laboratory and Lowcountry Hazards Center, which Levine directs, has tracked flooding increasing from 20 or 25 days a year to 60 to 89 days a year.
“That’s flooding that may be on roads, it’s flooding that’s on the edges of places, and that’s going to continue,” Levine said. The November day of his interview, he said, was an example: an extremely high tide met with a storm system that pushed water higher.
“We have more and more of these days where we’re looking at full marshes, and when you have a full marsh, that means that saltwater wedges further in,” he said. By what timeline, and how bad it’ll be this season, depends on the storm season itself, and whether these effects continue to accelerate, threatening to flood communities and businesses.
“Charleston is one of the world’s eight most vulnerable cities or regions to sea level rise and so that’s going to affect our courses in this area,” Levine said. “We are the ‘Lowcountry’ for a reason.”
GOLFING IN THE LOWCOUNTRY
Sea level projections for Patriots Point Links show spots of occasional flood risk in the next decade, and more frequent flooding by 2050. Managers there agree flooding has not been a problem. Rising tides have brought a little water onto the 18th hole’s rough, but don’t seem to have substantially affected the course, Brad Parker, general manager for Patriot Point Links, said via email. Future renovations could raise that area and the island green on the 17th hole.
Kiawah Island Golf Resort includes 10 holes on sand dunes, providing golfers there with among the most seaside holes of any course in the Northern Hemisphere. That provides for spectacular PGA Championships, the most recent in 2021. Tourists travel from all over the world to test themselves on the ocean course, considered one of the most difficult in North America. That exposure means the course has historically been hammered by storms, and repeatedly rebuilt.
After significant flooding in three consecutive years, Kiawah Island published a report in 2018 on the problems building as flooding worsens, and strategies to adapt. The report details how in early 2017 sand berms and dunes already shrunk by Hurricane Matthew were cut into again by Tropical Storm Irma.
Coastal flooding and sea level rise at Wild Dunes Resorts (Climate Central)
Areas of the golf course reached what the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management considered “emergency condition.” Other areas were deemed insufficiently setback from the high-tide line.
The town replenished dunes along those areas—pouring more sand there to slow erosion. (An evaluation of the roads and infrastructure mentioned roads could be modified to serve as auxiliary water storage and drainage basins; KICA and the Resort might even consider allowing parts of the golf course to serve that function, the report added: “There will be no golf on the island anyway until the excess water is drained and the island is back to normal operation.”)
Some portions of the course are already at chronic flood risk, expected to be inundated at least once a year on average. As seas continue to rise, the risks will swell and by 2100, unless emissions of heat-trapping emissions are reined in, most of the course's interior is expected to be at risk of chronic flooding.
Wild Dunes was built on the dunes for which it is named, but next to marsh that will impinge on the edges, Levine said. Climate Central's analysis shows coastal flood risks expanded beyond the riverfront to threaten beachfront and interior holes during the coming decades. Wild Dunes and Kiawah Island course representatives declined to comment for this story.
Coastal flooding and sea level rise at Wild Dunes Resorts (Climate Central)
“[In the] ’80s and ’90s, it started getting worse where we get a king tide or if we had a storm, you shut the course down for a week at least, and that translates into lost money,” Wise, the local golfer, said.
Wise learned to game not just the course, but the weather. He watched for big thunderstorms that could close the back nine on the municipal course; he could tell, just driving in, whether the course was going to be underwater based on how dry the fairway on the ninth hole looked.
Then the course, which was built in 1929, was renovated with rising tides and stormwater runoff in mind. Some places were lifted 18 inches and others up to 7 feet and the reshaped course opened in 2020.
WET COURSES ARE LESS FUN
Fast and firm condition of golf course fairways and greens are “what makes golf fun,” Miller said, and that’s what they’re seeing more of now at the municipal course.
“Now the ball does bounce and roll and it allows you to use the contours of the ground and it just creates a better playing condition and a better surface for players...which has made more people want to play the course,” Miller said.
When Hurricane Ian dropped 8 inches of rain on the golf course, the course’s new stormwater basins even helped to drain surrounding neighborhoods and homes, then quickly dried. The course was open again in a day.
“It operated exactly how we had engineered it to and just shows the opportunity to use these green spaces to combat flooding in other parts of the city,” Miller said.
He came out to watch how the course handled an unusually high tide on a sunny day last October when an 8.47-foot tide, the fifth highest ever, came in. The water rolled up to but then back from the fairway without saltwater encroaching, which can kill grass. The course never needed to close.
“Which was just a huge rewarding experience to be able to see that what you are doing has been done correctly and understanding that we are building for the future and trying to create the integrity of this golf course for generations to come,” he said.
And those generations could be looking at protecting against not just 8.5- but 9.5- or even 10-foot tides.
“It’s not going to get any cheaper to do this work and addressing it today will pay in the short term and certainly in the long haul,” Miller said.
Waves rolling in higher won’t be the only problem, Levine points out. As sea level rises, the groundwater will also become more saline, which can make it harder for grasses and trees on the course to survive. The whole groundwater table can also rise, he adds, which can affect how it feels to play the course, or kill the trees screening one hole from the next.
Flooding alone presents a problem for golf course turf, said Cole Thompson, who works on the USGA’s green section research team, and those problems are compounded with seawater. They start with submerging plants made to live on land, and end with sediment piling up that, over time, affects how that course plays. Plants respond to seawater like they’ve just been hit with a drought—and it’ll look brown or straw-colored, or wilted. Even when that water dries, it leaves behind a salty residue in soils.
The U.S. Golf Association has been tracking the effects on turf from drought, heat, and seawater. Grass is good for sports with heavy traffic precisely because it does regrow, but with these flood-associated problems, it struggles.
“After a while, you’re going to have turf that’s just not recovering,” Thompson said. “Probably one-sixteenth of the amount of salinity in seawater would be problematic for most plants—so it doesn’t take much.”
With the last of those problematic forces in mind, the association has supported the development of more salt-resistant grasses, like seashore paspalum. Replanted over fairways, it can survive periodic ocean flooding.
But closing to re-turf holes are among the time-consuming and expensive changes courses might face. That, like flooding, comes at a cost: Wise said, “you shut the course down for a week at least and that translates into lost money as far as money coming into the course.”