Southeast & Caribbean Region

Lower Winyah Bay Habitat Focus Area

Area Overview

Lower Winyah Bay is approximately 1,073 sq mi (678,104 acres) and encompasses the areas adjacent to the tidal waters of the estuary. It is part of the third largest watershed on the East Coast. Four major rivers drain into Winyah Bay, which opens to the Atlantic Ocean: the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black, and Sampit Rivers. The watershed includes typical estuarine habitats (salt marsh, oyster reefs), undisturbed Carolina Bays, and extensive freshwater wetlands including the largest block of contiguous tidal freshwater wetlands in the state of South Carolina. Lower Winyah Bay not only provides habitat for many fish, invertebrates, birds, reptiles, and mammals, but also critical ecosystem services to local communities. The City of Georgetown is located at the confluence of the four rivers, and freshwater wetlands in the watershed are an important source of drinking for residents. Salinity intrusion, from sea level rise and extreme events such as drought and hurricanes, are a realistic threat to these freshwater wetlands that many critical species and the local community rely upon.

Much of Lower Winyah Bay is forested (including forested wetlands) or is in a cultivated-transitional state. Ownership in the watershed is predominantly private, with large forest tracks either owned by the declining silvaculture industry or held by timber investment companies. Several coastal resort towns in the watershed lie near the City of Myrtle Beach, and are the fastest growing areas in Georgetown County. Substantial losses of forested wetlands to coastal development are already occurring, and are expected to increase with the likely withdrawal of timber investments and an improved economy in the future.




Proposed Habitat Conservation Objective(s)

The Nature Conservancy

Photo credit: The Nature Conservancy

  • Protect coastal habitats and ecosystem services at risk of climate change impacts by:
    • strategically identifying vulnerable habitats (particularly freshwater wetlands and forests) in Lower Winyah Bay to saltwater intrusion and other impacts;
    • prioritizing areas or lands for protection or conservation management to adapt to the impacts; and
    • implementing protection, restoration, and/or management on those priority lands (may include land acquisition, conservation easements, tidal hydrology restoration, marsh restoration, oyster restoration and living shorelines).
  • Protect coastal habitats at risk of loss/conversion by strategically prioritizing forested and freshwater wetlands for protection from ongoing and increasing development in the watershed.
  • Improve the resilience of coastal communities to climate change by informing and improving water management for drinking water supply and freshwater resources from potential salinity intrusion resulting from sea level rise and extreme events such as long-term drought (may include freshwater wetland protection as described in first bullet).

Potential to Fulfill Habitat Blueprint Outcomes

Strategic conservation will help sustain important ecosystem services provided by Lower Winyah Bay (including habitat for fish and wildlife and freshwater drinking resources) from climate change, extreme events, and increasing coastal development. NOAA can utilize an established conservation partnership of natural resource agencies and land protection/management entities, the Winyah Bay Task Force, to help implement the Habitat Blueprint. Through the Habitat Blueprint, NOAA can better integrate and extend the application of the many ongoing NOAA activities with partner activities in the watershed. NOAA can help identify specific conservation priorities and provide resources necessary to implement actions that will protect coastal areas and habitats at risk and improve resilience of coastal communities. In addition, the strategic processes and tools used to accomplish these coastal habitat protection and community resilience outcomes in Lower Winyah Bay can help inform climate adaptation and land use planning in other watersheds of the southeastern U.S., all experiencing similar sea level rise and coastal development pressures.

view of North Inlet Winyah Bay Reserve

Photo credit: North Inlet-Winyah Bay NERR

NOAA’s Role

  • NOAA’S North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) encompasses approximately 20,000 acres in the watershed and provides long-term research and monitoring capacity (including serving as a sentinel site for climate change), habitat stewardship, and training and technical assistance to coastal decision makers. They have recently developed a new tool for assessing habitat vulnerability to multiple climate change impacts and related stressors. The North Inlet-Winyah Bay NERR also participates in the Winyah Bay Task Force, a local conservation partnership that meets regularly to discuss conservation issues and priorities.
  • The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) is a multi-agency effort, implemented by NOAA. Under NIDIS’ Drought Early Warning System Pilot in the Carolinas, a number of activities have been focused in Lower Winyah Bay. Salinity monitoring, hydrologic modeling, and other studies in the watershed are being used to develop a coastal ecosystems drought early warning system for the Carolinas. Citizen science programs are also being spearheaded to observe coastal precipitation and local condition monitoring to increase drought impact observations that can be tied to coastal ecosystem changes in the focus area and elsewhere.
  • NOAA Fisheries Office of Habitat Conservation protects, restores, and promotes stewardship of coastal and marine habitat to provide a range of benefits for abundant fish and wildlife, commercial and recreational opportunities, and resilient coastal communities. Their Habitat Protection Division, along with NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program and other agencies have selected Horry County in South Carolina, which includes portions of Lower Winyah Bay, as a pilot location for conducting detailed wetland-change assessment under the President’s National Ocean Policy.
  • NOAA’s Coastal Services Center works to protect coastal resources and keep communities safe from coastal hazards by providing data, tools, training, and technical assistance. They have conducted marsh impact modeling for different sea level rise scenarios for the entire coast of South Carolina as part of their Sea Level Rise Viewer, as well as for portions of Lower Winyah Bay with the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM).
  • The Carolina’s Integrated Sciences and Assessment (CISA) is one of NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment programs located in the southeast. CISA works with stakeholders across North and South Carolina to incorporate climate information, such as climate downscaling, into water and coastal management and related decision making processes. CISA has conducted a number of projects specific to the focus area including: Modeling of the Winyah Bay Watersheds; Assessing the Impact of Salt-Water Intrusion in the Carolinas under Future Climatic and Sea-Level Conditions; and Assessment of Vibrio and Water Quality Conditions, being conducted in conjunction with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal and Ocean Science.
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