• Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

Sustainable Buffers and Waterways

We are a water-based community, surrounded by water, with uplands dotted by wetlands, ponds and lagoons. In many places on the island, development has gotten very close to these waterways. Studies show that when impervious surface (concrete, asphalt, roofs of buildings) coverage reaches 10% or more, surface water quality declines (Schueler, 1994). This is because of storm water that runs off of impervious surfaces, carrying pollutants (such as oils, greases, brake fluid, pet waste, antifreeze, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) on those surfaces with it. Storm water eventually flows to our waterways and the pollutants damage the aquatic organisms that live there. Over time, these pollutants can also cause our creeks and salt water marshes to be closed to shellfishing, fishing and swimming.

There are several ways to help avoid damaging waterways due to polluted storm water:
  • Hilton Head Island has an ordinance that requires buffers between waterways and adjacent development. A buffer is an area of physical separation from development that is required to be planted with native plants. The purpose of the buffer is to allow storm water to run into the buffer and soak into the ground, where beneficial organisms like bacteria in the soil and on the plant roots, as well as the plants themselves, break down the pollutants and make them less harmful or remove them altogether.

  • Another way is to cut down on the volume of storm water that is produced by using more pervious surfaces around your home. Pool decks, sidewalks, patios and driveways, all traditionally made of impervious materials, can be built of materials like pervious pavers and porous concrete, which reduce the amount of storm water runoff generated, as they allow passage of some or all of the storm water into the soil below.

  • Runoff from a roof can be captured by gutters and directed to a rain garden, where the plants perform the filtration of pollutants described above for the buffer. All of these things help improve water quality, which in turn protects aquatic organisms, our shellfishing and fishing industries, recreational activities and quality of life.

For more information on protecting water quality, visit Clemson University's Cooperative Extension website at www.clemson.edu/public/carolinaclear/what_you_can_do/homeowners.html.

How do I create a buffer with native plants?Photo of Buffer on a Canal

If you live on the water and have a buffer that is planted with native plants---great! If you don't and want to install one, please view the list of plants native to the island that can be used,

Native Hilton Head Island Plants

Also, check out the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control's Guide to Backyard Bufferspdf icon.

Remember, any work done in a buffer zone needs prior approval from the Town; staff is available to help you plan your buffer and answer your questions. Please contact Sally Krebs, Sustainable Practices Coordinator email icon at (843)341-4690 for assistance.

Why can't sod be used in buffers?

Many homeowners want to know why sod can’t be used in buffers.

First, and most critically, sod requires intensive maintenance to keep it healthy. This includes frequent fertilizer, herbicide to remove weeds and other chemicals to kill pests (e.g. fungus, mole crickets). Planting sod in a buffer area allows all of these chemicals to be applied in very close proximity to the water, and many of them wind up there.

Second, sod is a monoculture (the planting of only one species of plant) and has very low use as a resource to wildlife, while native plants have high wildlife use. Native plants have also evolved in our island environment, so they are resistant to drought and local pests. This saves you money on irrigation, pesticides and maintenance.