Beginning in the 1750’s, rice agriculture was a defining characteristic of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Rice production continued until the Civil War devastated most of the plantations where rice was grown. That, coupled with the loss of slaves as a labor force, halted the rice production. Many of these fields lay uncared for until the early part of the 20th century.
This rice cultivation transformed the landscape of South Carolina and the remnants of these fields are an important cultural resource. Today, many of these rice fields and other tidal impoundments are ecological preserves. They serve as important habitat for many species of migratory water fowl, shorebirds and endangered species. There are approximately 100 plantations with the tidal impoundments in the coastal areas of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Georgetown, Horry, Beaufort and Jasper counties.
In September 2010, during the discussion portion of a public seminar on regulatory procedures for management activities in managed tidal impoundments, held at Nemours Plantation, the subject of developing a general permit that would specifically address legitimate emergency response procedures and authorize activities that normally and routinely occur within managed tidal impoundments was raised. The need for this new permit was driven by the applicant’s need to save critical time on routine and normal maintenance and emergency repair activities.
Regular management actions within managed tidal rice fields or impoundments are necessary for the continued use of the impoundments as wildlife habitat. Many of these activities are considered normal and routine maintenance or repair activities and only have minor impacts to waters of the United States. However, only some of the normal and routine activities that regularly occur are authorized by nationwide permits while others may only be authorized by individual Department of the Army permits. Individual Department of the Army permits can take months to obtain because they require a public notice period and applicant also has to apply to the Office of Coastal Resource Management for their state permit.
To assist with developing an efficient general permit that would address tidal impoundment management practices, the Corps invited representatives from Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), as well as rice plantation owners and managers and environmental consultants, to attend a meeting to discuss the specifics that would be needed for a general permit. These representatives became known as the Managed Tidal Impoundment General Permit Advisory Committee. The Corps took this technical information provided by the committee, as well as public interest factors, into consideration to determine which activities would result in minimal adverse environmental effects.
Since the general permit was developed to authorize routine and normal maintenance and repair activities in certain managed tidal impoundment fields that meet specific requirements, the Corps incorporated an eligibility determination requirement into the general permit. The eligibility determination allows for the Corps to review and make determinations as to which specific managed tidal impoundment fields are eligible for use of the general permit.
The eligibility determination procedure requires that the applicant submit a list of specific information to the Corps. The Corps will make an eligibility determination prior to use of the general permit and will provide the applicant with a letter confirming eligibility. Determining eligibility in advance of anticipated use of the general permit will not only help to ensure that the general permit is only used in eligible fields but will help the speed of the permitting process once applications are submitted.
The eligibility determination procedure also includes coordination periods with SHPO and USFWS to allow them to determine if any activity authorized by the general permit that occurs within eligible managed tidal impoundment fields will affect a historic property or a threatened and endangered species.
A public notice advertising the draft managed tidal impoundment general permit was issued on November 1, 2011. The Corps received many letters of support of the general permit from various plantation owners and managers, environmental organizations and non-profit groups, federal and state resource agencies, and individuals from the public. Only minor comments and recommendations were received.
The final managed tidal impoundment general permit (# 2011-1157) was issued on July 10, 2012. Activities authorized by the general permit include the following:
- replacement, relocation, or installation of existing and new water control structures
- excavation of new or maintenance of inlet canals associated with water controls structures
- construction of bulkheads associated with water controls structures
- re-topping of existing and functional field-dikes
- excavation of material for re-topping field-dikes
- construction of bulkheads for field-dike stabilization
- re-establishment of berm for embankment stabilization
- construction of non-emergency contraction embankments
- construction and maintenance of quarter/interior field drains
- construction of road crossings across canals or drains within existing managed tidal impoundments
- moist soil management practices
- emergency construction of contraction embankments
The general permit will streamline the permitting process and will provide for a transparency with what activities are covered, thereby reducing any confusion the applicants may have. The general permit will also provide for a more efficient and timely permitting process.