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Coastal wetlands protect us from disaster

Scientists say we're losing more than 80,000 acres of wetlands nationwide a year, a rate that is increasing. (WPDE/Matt Parris)
Scientists say we're losing more than 80,000 acres of wetlands nationwide a year, a rate that is increasing. (WPDE/Matt Parris)
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Scientists say we're losing more than 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands each year to development, a rate that is increasing.

Time is something that moves a little slower for folks like Shannon Stone.

"Everyone loves living near the water," Stone said. "Looking out and seeing the boats go by is relaxing."

Stone lives on the Intracoastal Waterway; his home is on stilts. He knows that the rivers and streams flood.

"I wanted a house on stilts," Stone explained. "If the water rose, it would make sense to have your house elevated and I wanted to live near the water."

Stone has called the rivers and beaches of South Carolina home for most of his life. Storm after storm, he's seen the land change. He said the flooding from Hurricane Florence took him by surprise.

"We spent two weeks with the canoe tied to the stairs every day," Stone recalled. "We'd walk downstairs, get in the boat, and paddle to our cars."

During his time on the water, he said he has seen homes pop up nearly everywhere as the land changed.

"These things are happening on a really big time scale, but this is something you can see the evidence of right here," said Maeve Snyder.

Scientists have noticed something similar and Snyder knows it better than most. She's seen wetlands turn into developments.

"Wetlands are a natural feature in South Carolina," said Snyder, a researcher at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Georgetown County.

Snyder and other scientists said developing wetlands has shown a clear connection to increasing flood disasters.

Wetlands act as a sponge, absorbing water when it rains or the excess water when rivers flood. However, when that sponge is gone, because of a new development or a parking lot, that water has nowhere left to go.

"In South Carolina's coastal zones, wetlands are a dominant feature," Snyder said.

At the research reserve, Snyder serves as the Coastal Training Program Coordinator and educates the next generation of local leaders and developers. She said teaching them to work with mother nature and not against her is her main task.

"We're looking at long-term planning, how we make decisions so we can be adapted for the future and how we can mitigate future events like Hurricane Florence," Snyder said.

After the floods of 2015, Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence, Snyder said they started to take a closer look at how growth impacts flooding.

"That's one of the main things the reserve does is monitoring," Snyder said. "So we know how these environments have changed through time."

Snyder points to Georgetown's success during Hurricane Florence as a case for wetland conservation. "When the water got to Winyah Bay, it had enough floodplain and volume that it was able to take in all that water without so much flooding."

Snyder and other scientists say time is of the essence, and it's up to each and every one of us to be a voice for mother nature to help her protect the least of these, and protect humanity as long as the rivers meet the sea.

As time changes not only the landscape and rivers, we go back to Shannon Stone on the water. "Part of living near the's beautiful, we know that. If you choose to live near the water, you have to realize the choice you make. You can't get mad at mother nature or upset or think that someone else should pay for your misfortune when you chose to be there."

Snyder and her team at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve host workshops for developers and government officials to help them recognize wetlands, understand their importance and learn to avoid developing them further.

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