Pawleys Island up to its piers in sand as beach renourishment project ends

By Terry Massey ˙ March 26, 2020

Footprints and pilings provide some perspective on just how much sand has been added to Pawleys Island’s beaches.

Migratory shorebirds use the Earth’s magnetic field to find this same stretch of South Carolina coastline year after year, but these two Canadian lovebirds needed more than happy memories to recognize Pawleys Island.

Returning to the island for the first time since their honeymoon in 2017, Thomas and Camille Brown of Ontario couldn’t believe their eyes. It was the same charming Pawleys Island they remembered – only a lot more of it.

“You can’t even see the rocks (groin) anymore,” said Thomas, flipping through his phone for photos of the newlyweds taken in the exact spot. “There is so much more sand on the beach than the last time we were here.”

About 1.1 million cubic yards of sand, to be precise, as a result of the massive beach renourishment project that is concluding up by the end of March. After six months and more than $14 million, the end is in sight.

“We wrapped up (March 16) but we will spend the next two weeks pulling up pipes and tilling,” Pawleys Island town administrator Ryan Fabbri said. “The dredge is gone but we will still have a presence on the beach.”

But not for long, then Pawleys Island residents and visitors can see how much healthier the biggie-sized beach is after the project is complete. Beach-goers will stand between 3 to 6 feet higher on the beach than this time last year.

“A lot of people think it was for aesthetic purposes, and it definitely looks better,” Fabbri said. “But protecting private property was the main reason. There are other benefits, but this project needed to be done.”

Bulldozers level out the dredged sand during February operations.

Shifting Sands of Time

The barrier islands of the South Carolina Lowcountry, with beautiful beaches and dunes along the Atlantic Ocean side and tidal creeks and salt marshes separating the island from the mainland, form a unique ecosystem.

Their borders and topography are not set in stone. Winds, currents, tides and storms are constant forces that conspire to move sand and reshape the islands. Maintaining a healthy habitat requires sand, and lots of it.

As it turns out, there is an unlimited supply just offshore after tides and time have carried the old sand out to sea. By dredging the ocean floor and pumping sand back onto the beach, you can fix it – for a while.

If it sounds like fighting a losing battle, it is. But it’s one Pawleys Island had to confront or run the risk of losing homes and perhaps having the island split in two by a swollen creek seeking a shortcut to the sea.

There was a very real possibility of a new inlet being carved through the island, which happened during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The southern end of the 3 1/2-mile strip of sand was particularly vulnerable to breaching.

“Where the dunes had washed away, we had water on the road at high tide every day,” Fabbri said. “Over time, it could build a new channel. If we hadn’t pushed up those dunes, there’s no doubt it would have happened.”

Pawleys Island hadn’t undergone beach renourishment in 15 years, and it showed, especially after a recent string of hurricanes and king-tide floods. The result was a beach gradually vanishing below the surging high-tide line.

“We needed to add a bigger buffer between the ocean and the oceanfront homes,” Fabbri said. “If we didn’t do this project within five years we were going to start losing homes, so there really was no other option.”

Workers construct new boardwalks between the towering dunes at the beach accesses.

Sand Dollars Well-Spent

Pawleys Island has a different type of sand bank for such projects, one that dates back more than two decades. The Beach Fund, the product of a 3-percent accommodations tax established in 1999, had grown to $6 million.

Those funds were nearly matched by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which contributed $5.6 million to the project. The Town of Pawleys Island borrowed $2.8 million to get the maximum sand and value.

“We got the per-cubic-yard price down so low, but people didn’t understand the scale or scope of it,” Fabbri said. “You can say 1.1 million cubic yards but it doesn’t register. Now you can see the before and after.”

Not only does the fresh coat of sand protect private property, the beach is noticeably nicer for locals and visitors to enjoy and healthier for native flora and fuana (sea turtles, shorebirds, sea oats) to flourish.

The dunes, which have been re-enforced to approximately 6 feet high and 15 feet wide, will help protect the island interior from storm surge and tidal overflow.Tiling and twice daily tide cycles will help level out the beach over time, but how long will it last?

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with future storms, but if you take the traditional erosion rates since the 1980s, everything south of the pier is eroding up to 6 to 7 inches per year in some places,” Fabbri said.

“Based on those rates, if we do nothing for the next 12 years there will still be plenty of sand. That could change if we have a bad storm like we have the past three years, but at least we are better prepared for it.”

Protecting private property may be the primary purpose of the project, but beach-goers are sold on the scenery.

“Whatever they did, it’s wonderful,” Camille said. “I never imagined this place could be more beautiful.”

The pipes used to pump sand on the beach are being removed from the beach through the end of March.