Savannah biologist preserving natural beauty at Belfair
Two wood storks sat in the loblolly pine overlooking the pond and were soon joined by more.
Several flights of the birds — four, five, six storks at a time — flew in from the east, over the marsh.
“Must mean the tide’s changed,” Jeff Williams said Wednesday morning. He explained the birds had been out feeding at low tide; as the water comes back in, so do the storks.
Williams, a wildlife biologist with Savannah-based Sligh Environmental Consultants, stood on the bridge atop the embankment that separates the marsh from the pond bordering the No. 17 fairway and No. 18’s championship tee box at Belfair’s West Course in Bluffton.
Bulkheads reinforce the embankment, and on either side of it, sticking up more than six feet out of the water, are two wooden structures.
Those structures, which a quick glance might mistake as the backs of giant Adirondack chairs, are the gates of a rice trunk.
Since July, Belfair’s rice trunk has regulated water flow into and out of the pond. The quality of its water has improved. And animals like the wood stork — a threatened species, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — have benefited.
Rice trunks rely on a centuries-old design to regulate water flow, circulation and depth in an impounded area such as a pond.
Or a rice field.
By 1730 South Carolina was exporting 18 million pounds (of rice) annually.
Richard Porcher, Jr. and William Judd, in “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice”
Trunks of varying designs were used in the Lowcountry as far back as the 18th century. In their book “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice,” Richard Porcher Jr. and William Judd write, “By 1730 South Carolina was exporting 18 millions pounds (of rice) annually.” Rice trunks — giving growers the ability to control water — made that possible.
Trunks can still be found in the area, in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and along the Combahee River. The trunk at Belfair is styled after those found along that river, Williams said. And it’s an example of an old technology being used for a new purpose — habitat management.
Belfair’s trunk, located on the east end of the pond, was installed in July. It cost between $130,000 and $140,000, “from conception to completion,” according to Dan Duryea, Belfair’s director of community management.
Two water management systems had come before it. They allowed Belfair to maintain a certain water level but didn’t have the ability to raise or lower it. At low tide, as water drained out of the pond and into the marsh, the pond’s west end would dry out. During droughts, the effect was more pronounced.
And newcomers to the community complained about the smell coming from the pond — the pluff mud.
Williams proposed the rice trunk as a solution, partly for its historic ties to the area but primarily because of its proven design.
One of the beauties of rice trunks is you get them set and they do the work themselves. The gates swing with the tides.
“One of the beauties of rice trunks is you get them set and they do the work themselves,” he said. “The gates swing with the tides.”
Strait Lyle of Wetlands Contracting, who built and installed Belfair’s trunk, said the average trunk — the portion that’s buried under the embankment and connects the pond to the marsh — is 32 feet long. The entire contraption, gates and all, weighs about 7,500 pounds. It’s constructed from pressure-treated pine.
He’s built and installed “hundreds” of them throughout the Lowcountry, roughly 40 to 50 a year, he said.
“Our trunks are all pegged” — the tops of the gates have several sets of holes, allowing the gates to be set at different heights for ideal water circulation — “just like they were 200 years ago,” Lyle said. “There’s really no way to improve on the design. The function — it provides everything we need it to provide.”
Water circulation is the primary benefit of rice trunks used for habitat management.
The marsh-side gate at Belfair is set at a higher level to help keep water in the pond while still allowing salt water to seep into it before draining back out. That keeps the water from becoming stagnant and helps it stay brackish, Williams said.
Water circulation has another benefit: The pond’s pluff mud will seep out over time instead of having to be removed by dredging.
We could have spent a lot less money doing a different project. But the membership felt it was important to invest in the preservation of that pond using the best technology available, and that would be the 200-year-old rice trunk.
“We could have spent a lot less money doing a different project,” Duryea said. “But the membership felt it was important to invest in the preservation of that pond using the best technology available, and that would be the 200-year-old rice trunk.”
Water circulation improves water quality, Williams said, which means more widgeon grass, which means more crabs, which means more fish, which means a more appealing habitat for wading birds.
Such as the wood stork.
Near the bridge, on the pond’s south bank, the trees’ leaves are stained white. Bird feces, Williams said, a sign the storks are using the pond as a roosting area.
Farther away, in the tall pine overlooking the pond, over a dozen storks congregated after their morning hunt. You could tell the tree was a regular perch for them, Williams said, because of the gaps between its branches.
Wood storks like a good view.