Recycle This Beach!


From trees to tide, the beach is an ecosystem. Photo credit: Todd Ballantine

THE FIRST PLACE people want to go after arriving to Hilton Head Island is the beach. The Island seashore is a playground, peaceful refuge, and a place of epic beauty for people. The beach is also a natural habitat with many communities: dunes, the upper beach, lower shore, tidal pools, near-shore shoals, and sandbars. And perhaps most important: the seashore is the buffer between storm waves and homes, hotels, resorts and businesses. We need the beach.


Six Facts of Life for a Beach

Let’s say you are staying on the Island this week. Seven days isn’t enough time to notice that the seashore is changing significantly. But it is always changing. Here is the inside scoop (of sand):

1. The Island’s present-day beach was formed because rising sea level rolled sand into place from far offshore.

2. Wind, waves, high tides, Nor’easters and tropical storms shape the beach—eroding here, building up there.

3. Longshore (sideways) currents transport sand from one area of the beach to another. Example: South Beach in Sea Pines was formed from sand eroded from the center of the Island, and transported to the south end. That’s why this area looks like a toe on the Hilton Head Island foot.

4. Without a new supply of sand, the beach will erode because the sea level is rising, slowly but steadily.

5. An eroded beach is not attractive for tourists, oceanfront real estate, or coastal wildlife.

6. Humans can restore the beach. This effort sustains the natural shore, the local economy, and significant natural habitat.


Beach Renourishment on Hilton Head Island

In 1990, the Town of Hilton Head Island committed to a long-range shoreline restoration program. The program has four parts. First comes the science. The Town authorized a series of engineering studies to determine why and how the beach has eroded; where erosion occurs and at what historical rate; where the sand ends up when eroded. The studies helped officials realize why the long-term rate of sand loss is significant on Bass Head, Palmetto Dunes in the midpoint of the Island’s ocean beach.

Second, the Town developed long-term plan of action. Amended in 1992 and 2008, the Comprehensive Beach Management Plan developed the strategy to protect and preserve and maintain the beach system, assure wise oceanfront development, and provide more public access to the beach. The Town has acted successfully on each of these goals.

Third, the Town developed a funding mechanism to pay for these ambitious environmental and recreational projects. The Town of Hilton Head Accommodations Tax of 2% on short-term rentals provided revenue for restoring the beach and public access.

This funding source is both logical and fair. A 2006 study by Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Visitor and Convention Bureau found that the beach is the number one attraction for 85% the Island’s 2.2 million annual visitors, and that significantly benefits commercial and resort business. The so-called “bed tax” is the fair price of admission for those who visit our beach most.

Fourth, the Town committed to a program of beach renourishment. This involves dredging sand from offshore and pumping the material back to the beach. Every 5-7 years, on average, the Town commissions a follow-up project to replace sand that has been eroded.

Beach renourishment is a sustainable program that protects the Island’s prime natural and economic resource. It is fairly funded by user groups. It improves space for recreation and supports new beach access. The elevated beach-dune buffer provides better storm protection. And it restores significant natural habitat.

Now, that’s recycling!