The Local Life: Wildlife refuge: A gem in our backyard

Voices from the Beaufort community

August 15, 2011 

If you are a bird-watcher, you probably have been to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. If you are an aspiring bird-watcher, or for that matter any kind of Lowcountry critter-watcher, you owe it to yourself to spend some time in this rare treasure. It is a jewel in our backyard, a completely unique habitat that is rapidly disappearing.

The good news is the repairs within the refuge's main access road, Laurel Hill Drive, have been completed. The road reopened last week, allowing visitors to spend a comfortable day viewing all the refuge has to offer from the comfort of an air-conditioned car.

Laurel Hill Drive's repairs are worth noting beyond the reopening of this incredible access to the refuge. Indeed, the road's repair story illustrates the devastating effects dredging the Savannah River can have on the refuge.

In June 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service closed Laurel Hill Drive in order to conduct extensive repairs to part of the refuge's water control system. The water control system is primarily a system of tide gates. The tide gates were installed more than three decades ago to mitigate a Savannah Harbor dredging project.

For this 1977 project, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Savannah Harbor to 38 feet. Dredging the harbor causes salt water to flow further upstream, which in turn destroys vital tidal freshwater wetlands. This habitat is dwindling rapidly with every dredging. Twelve thousand acres in this particular estuary have been dredged down to 3,300 acres. To mitigate this effect, the Corps built a diversion canal and tide gates to deal with salt water.

That mitigation scheme of canals and gates failed almost immediately, and we have been waiting 30 years for the repairs. Thirty years. The failure occurred because the 38-foot dredging resulted in a higher than expected level of salt water -- which corroded the controls for the gates.

Why do we care about higher salt levels and loss of tidal freshwater wetlands? This habitat is a critical draw for our area -- to birds and to the people who love them. During migratory season, 21 species of warblers stop here and more than 13 species of ducks, numbering in the thousands (including the rarely seen cinnamon teal, Eurasian widgeon and fulvous whistling duck).

I might never have seen a fulvous whistling duck, but I desperately want to. Right now Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites are "riding the thermal waves" over the refuge, according to Dick Work, a member of the Fripp Audubon Club. Dick and his wife, Sally, were among those eager to visit the newly opened drive and captured spectacular photos of the kites in the first week it reopened to the public.

The Georgia Ports Authority is proposing yet another dredging of the river -- this time to 48 feet -- with yet more salt water creep into this refuge. This dredging proposes yet more mitigation measures that might or might not work. At stake is at least another 340 acres of tidal freshwater wetlands. If the mitigation fails, will the Corps take responsibility? And if it does, when will it act?

I am delighted that Laurel Hill Drive has reopened. Walk it. Drive it. Enjoy it. But do so knowing its story and that we don't want to be telling a similar one in 30 years.

For more information on the negative effects of the Savannah River dredging project, go to www.portbarrel.org.

Andrea Malloy is the interim director of the south coast office of the Coastal Conservation League.

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