The Price of Sandy Beaches

Wrightsville Beach, NC – With the federal deficit looming at more than 400 billion dollars this year, you might not have noticed the 130 million recently set aside to repair Florida's tourist beaches. The beaches were battered by four powerful hurricanes that swept away millions of tons of sand, and with it, millions of potential tourist dollars.

Florida's shoreline will be repaired using beach nourishment, where sand is dredged from a distant area and pumped or dumped onto an eroding beach. This new sand is used to widen beaches and sometimes rebuild sand dunes, protecting beachfront property and encouraging tourism.

Florida isn't the only state worried about eroding beaches. North Carolina suffers both short-term erosion from storms, as well as long-term, chronic shoreline erosion. Like Florida, North Carolina has been nourishing its beaches for decades. But three towns in New Hanover County are preparing to sue the federal government over this issue. That's because in February, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would eliminate funding for periodic beach nourishment projects due to budget constraints.

Since 1994, more than 40 million dollars has been spent on beach nourishment in Wrightsville Beach, Kure Beach, and Carolina Beach. The federal government pays about 65 percent of those costs, while the state covers about one quarter. Local communities pay the remaining 10 percent by collecting a room occupancy tax.

Rick Catlin is Chairman of the County's Ports, Waterways, and Beach Commission. He says losing two-thirds of nourishment funding would put beaches and property at risk.

[Catlin] We're all good, loyal Americans, and we realize that we're fighting a war, and there may be times when we can't get the funding we need for our program, and we'll work around that, but to be cut out completely with no hope of being part of it again, is devastating.

Beach nourishment isn't the only federal program under scrutiny in these uncertain economic times. Consider the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides federally backed property insurance in floodplains and along coastlines. Critics say the program unfairly benefits coastal property owners at the expense of other policyholders. That's because the inherent risk of living along the coast is not reflected in the cost of insurance premiums.

Beth Millemann is the National Coordinator for The Ocean Policy Project, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, DC. She says federal programs like National Flood Insurance and beach nourishment provide dangerous and costly incentives for building and rebuilding in high-risk coastal areas. Millemann says two recent blue ribbon commissions, the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, studied the issue and reached similar conclusions.

[Millemann] Both of them concluded that it is time that the federal government got out of the business of subsidizing development in hazard prone, erosion prone, and fragile coastal areas.

While flood insurance provides direct benefits to coastal property owners, the beneficiaries of beach nourishment are harder to pin down. There's no doubt beaches generate big business both locally and nationally. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration says beaches are the leading tourist destination in the U.S. Travel and tourism generate more than 700 billion dollars in annual revenue, the second largest contributor to the GDP.

Considering the economic benefits to the nation, Rick Catlin says it makes as much sense to spend federal dollars on maintaining North Carolina beaches as it does on other things.

[Catlin] Well, we spend money on the Great Lake beaches, we spend money on keeping the rivers dredged, and the flood levees built, and we fight forest fires in other parts of the country, so what's good for one part of the nation is good for all of the nation.

Beth Millemann says most taxpayers are not getting their money's worth.

[Millemann] Yes, we spend money to dredge rivers. We do that in order to keep barge and ship traffic going in America. We do lots of activities that have a broader public good. Is it in the nation's interest that a community in North Carolina has a large beach?

New Hanover beach communities say they can eventually fund nourishment projects by themselves, but only if the federal government lives up to its commitments. Some of these commitments, like one with Kure Beach, now extend more than forty years. But with scientists predicting sea level rise and more frequent storms caused by global climate change, the cost of future beach nourishment projects is unclear.

Spencer Rogers studies coastal processes for North Carolina Sea Grant. He says shorelines are eroding more quickly these days, but scientists cannot accurately predict erosion caused by future climate changes. He says all erosion control alternatives have tradeoffs, including beach nourishment.

[Rogers] Its main downside is that it's a very expensive operation and it requires maintenance over time. It's not something you can build a seawall and walk away and live happily ever after in Galveston. It's something you have to maintain periodically. But that's also what gives it its advantages, in that it's one of the few erosion control methods that doesn't hurt the neighbors.

Rick Catlin hopes the public will be supportive as beach communities try and adapt to both changes in economic priorities and changes in the shoreline.

[Catlin] We'll always need, both for human spirit and for our economy, a beach that we can go to. But it's going to move, and in some point in time, you're going to have to adapt to that change. Our present beach renourishment program buys us time.

For WHQR Public Radio in Wilmington, I'm Steve Meador.