These seedlings could grow up to 8 feet tall, and their deep root systems provide the foundation for salt marshes. (Photos by Danielle Cahn)

SC - Marsh restoration project builds coastal resilience and community

More than 4,000 feet of the heavily developed Charleston coastline are better protected from flooding thanks to an unlikely hero: smooth cordgrass.

Smooth cordgrass, or Spartina alterniflora, is an essential ingredient to healthy salt marshes, which act as natural flood barriers, water filtration systems and nurseries for marine wildlife.

“The oyster reef will help deposit sediment and mud behind the reef, and that marsh grass will use its root system to pack in and hold the mud together,” said Kelly Lambert, a natural resource technician at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “So they really work hand-in-hand together to protect our waterways and provide habitat.”

After severe “dieback” events during droughts in 2012 and 2016, large areas of Charleston’s salt marshes were left stripped and vulnerable to erosion, according to research by environmental groups. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded a grant for salt marsh restoration to DNR in 2019.  Now, after forging partnerships with local coastal conservation organizations and four years of hard work, the project is coming to a close.

Organizers, which also include the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium, S.C. Aquarium and the Clemson University Cooperative Extension, said the impacts have been obvious.

“The project in total will create about 2.3 acres of new habitat and estimated salt marsh habitat,” said Peter Kingsley Smith, the shellfish research section manager for SCDNR. “One of the big benefits of this project is we’re making a really close connection in space between people that are living in a highly developed area … (and) the use of nature-based approaches to protect and conserve habitat and provide protection against things like sea level rise and increased storminess, both of which are very prevalent hazards in the Lowcountry.”

Many members of the Charleston community have volunteered to help by collecting seeds, growing the seedlings and transplanting them in marshes.

“There’s a huge interest in this ecosystem, which is really positive,” said E.V. Bell, the marine education specialist for the Sea Grant Consortium. “There’s just this wonderful community ethic, I guess, or a stewardship ethic is probably the best way to say that … that people are really, really wanting to help.”

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