Georgia

The Nature Conservancy and partners are working in coastal Georgia to identify ways to reduce the risk of coastal hazards to its residents using natural infrastructure, living shorelines, and protected wetlands and floodplains. Together, entire barrier islands and thousands of acres of saltmarsh and coastal floodplain have been placed into protection. Since implementing some of the first successful living shoreline pilot projects in Georgia, we are using those pilot sites to promote the use of oyster and saltmarsh habitat instead of seawalls. Our historic and current efforts with land protection in the Altamaha River Basin have enabled a more resilient coastal floodplain.  In Camden County, Georgia, we are addressing community vulnerability and risk of flooding through Flood Risk Awareness and Decision Support Tools.

Overview

Many Georgia residents, such as this crabber, rely on the health of the coast for their livelihoods. © Erika Nortemann/TNC

Claiming a total land area of 5,863 square miles, the population of coastal Georgia is the fastest growing region of any in the state, outside of metropolitan Atlanta. It is home to the historic city of Savannah and three other coastal urban centers. These coastal economies are driven by the two ports (Port of Brunswick and Port of Savannah, which is the fastest growing port in the nation), three military bases, and tourism. However, Georgia’s coastal region is also experiencing increasing risks due to flooding, storms and sea level rise. Sea levels have increased 3mm/year over the past 70 years and are predicted to rise at least 8 inches and as much as 6.6 feet by year 2100. Reported insured losses to coastal Georgia after Hurricane Matthew’s 2016 landfall were $90 million. Rates of residential and infrastructure development along coastal Georgia’s waterways have increased significantly, resulting in more risk to people and property within both urban and rural areas.

Camden County

A primarily rural coastal Georgia area, Camden county is home to approximately 50,000 people. Its population is expected to grow 26% in the next 20 years, more than any other county along Georgia’s coast. Rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding events will inevitably make these human communities more vulnerable, including the 35% of the county’s population already living within the floodplain. Land use planning and flood risk education steers development infrastructure investments away from flood-prone areas to protect both residents and their properties.

Living Shorelines

Intertidal oysters on Little St. Simons Island. ©Blake Gordon Photography

Within coastal Georgia’s low-lying, 100-mile shoreline resides approximately 1/3 of the total salt marsh on the east coast, which also includes a strong presence of oysters. In Georgia, both salt marsh and oyster habitat are being protected and restored for their roles in reducing coastal hazards. As a natural approach to addressing coastal erosion, salt marsh and oyster reef living shorelines are alternatives to traditional hardened structures, such as seawalls or bulkheads. Through partnerships in action, several living shoreline demonstration projects have been constructed using salt marsh and oyster reefs, including one on Sapelo Island and another on Little St. Simons Island.  As two of the first successful living shoreline restoration projects in Georgia, these sites serve as educational examples to state and local governments and private citizens of the benefits of using natural over traditional grey infrastructure.

Habitat Preservation

The Altamaha River and its expansive and protected floodplain meanders to the Atlantic Ocean.
Photo credit: ©Blake Gordon Photography

The conservation of land and water within the greater coastal Georgia region is an important strategy to help build resilient communities by protecting areas that dissipate floodwaters, absorb storm surge and wave energy, and allow migration of vegetation and important species as sea level rises. Coastal Georgia’s low-lying floodplain system has the capacity to manage coastal hazards naturally. TNC has protected more than 160,000 acres and 50 river miles of the lower Altamaha River Basin, the second largest river basin on the east coast. This expansive floodplain continues to provide critical ecological services to the surrounding communities by buffering the impacts of storm surge, riverine flooding and sea level rise while providing critical wildlife habitat to the diverse species that call it home.

 

 

Community Planning

Local planning and actions will include educating residents about the potential for current and future flooding inundation, sources of flooding, and proactive measures for reducing the danger of safety and property. Camden County, Georgia is home to 3 coastal rivers, and their associated wetlands and floodplains comprise 200,000 acres, or approximately 50% of the county’s land area. TNC and its partners are addressing where people and infrastructure within the community are vulnerable to flooding with a Flood Risk Awareness Decision Support Tool. Finding solutions for coastal hazards involves using creative online support tools that help identify nature’s role in protecting humans from coastal disasters. We are currently in the process of developing an online tool for use in Camden County for both the residents and county planners.

Our team has developed a concept for an online tool with several goals.

  • Inform the local public of their flooding risk and actions they can take to reduce risk.
  • Assist decision makers with their planning efforts to encourage smart growth.

    The Coastal Hwy 17 ‘Blue Bridge’ crosses just feet above the blackwater St. Marys River in Camden County.