The October 2015 flood is second only to Hurricane Hugo as the costliest environmental disaster in South Carolina’s history. Rain raised the Waccamaw River to 16.2 feet, 5.2 feet above flood stage.
In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew resulted in the highest water level ever recorded on the Waccamaw River in the Conway area at 16.9 feet. Hurricane Matthew, the flood of 2015, and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 seemed to compete in the amount of water produced, damages to residential and commercial properties, bridges and roads, interruption of access to electricity, lost wages and uncertainty and inconvenience. Extreme weather will hit us again and again. What can we do to protect our residents, their property, businesses and communities?
Conway is every inch a “river town.” Our historic downtown sits on the banks of the beautiful, black water Waccamaw River. This river is our most celebrated and important asset, driving tourism and jobs, providing family-oriented outdoor recreation, and anchoring downtown revitalization. Still, river water can be a source of trouble in extreme weather.
One thing we can do to minimize flood impacts during extreme weather is to ensure the full functioning of the Waccamaw River’s floodplain forests. Floodplain forests are those that line a river’s banks, providing natural buffers against catastrophic flooding. They flood periodically as the river crests, giving high waters an immediate place to go. Floodplain forest tree roots steadily absorb excess water.
The buffer provided by floodplain forests must be protected. Conway is at work with The Nature Conservancy and Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge to further reduce flood risks and increase our quality of life by protecting 500 acres of floodplain forest directly across from Conway’s downtown river walk. Half of that property was transferred to the city in November 2016, with a conservation easement in place, held by the Conservancy. That easement ensures that land will never be developed beyond the terms of the easement.
The remainder will be owned and managed by the refuge. Both parcels provide opportunities for boating, hiking and bird watching. They also will help protect us from future floods. During October 2015 and October 2016, the tract remained underwater for several weeks, holding many millions of gallons of water that did not flood our homes and streets.
Keeping the Waccamaw’s floodplain healthy and intact improves our public safety, our local economy, and our quality of life. The city will continue to work with the conservancy and the refuge, as well as a growing network of partners that includes Horry County, Friends of Coastal South Carolina, American Rivers, Open Space Institute, and more, to expand conservation and public access along the Waccamaw River.
It’s an investment well worth making.
The writer is the mayor of Conway.