This September the scenic Waccamaw River crested at more than 20 feet, flooding the city of Conway, South Carolina. The flood, caused by Hurricane Florence, garnered national attention, as the normally placid Waccamaw, which winds its way through Conway on its way to the Atlantic Ocean, left destruction and devastation in its path.
For the 17,000 residents of Conway, these “historic” weather events are, sadly, becoming the new normal. Occurring more frequently — and with greater intensity — the floods are permanently altering the way of life in Conway and surrounding communities. Even before Florence hit the region, devastating floods in 2015 and 2016 resulted in more than $1 million in damage to city property alone.
Recognizing this new reality, community leaders are taking steps to better prepare for the future.
“Extreme weather will hit us again and again,” says Barbara Blain-Bellamy, the mayor of Conway. “Our challenge is to improve our understanding of extreme water and wind events, and to act appropriately to best protect our residents, their property, and local businesses.”
For long term-solutions, Conway is turning to land conservation and to the Open Space Institute.
In 2016, OSI joined the Upper Waccamaw Task Force, a collaboration of conservation organizations and local government looking for a natural solution to the flooding problem. The Task Force — which is administered by Winyah Rivers Foundation and includes the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of Conway, Horry County, and several conservation groups — identified land conservation as one of the most effective long-term solutions to help absorb water during and after extreme rain events.
After the Task Force identified a floodplain forest along a section of the Waccamaw River and within Conway’s city limits, OSI’s Maria Whitehead, Senior Project Manager, helped locate a key, 152-acre parcel critical to providing flood relief to Conway.
When they are conserved on a large enough scale, parcels like this one can provide a natural buffer against catastrophic flooding, since they can hold millions of gallons of water that would otherwise inundate local homes and streets. On a local scale, forested wetland properties act as important sponges, and they can even provide breaking action on fast-moving flood waters, slowing their speed and reducing erosion.
Coupled with sustainable city planning, improved and updated building codes, and other measures, land protection will form a critical part of the solution to safeguarding Conway.
“Especially during times of extreme weather, protecting wetlands and floodplains is an effective way to buffer communities,” says Whitehead. “Land is an extremely important, but often underappreciated, tool in the effort to the curb the effects of climate change. While people generally recognize the value of land conservation for clean water, habitat, and recreation, it’s gratifying that folks are grasping other values of protected land.”
Hurricane Florence has spurred the conservation community and local communities into thinking more broadly about land — as one of the most effective ways to absorb excess water.