Since World War II, taxpayers have spent $107 million to rebuild eroding beaches at Palm Beach, Fla., home of President Trump’s private club and estate Mar-a-Lago.
Now those efforts spanning seven decades and 12.5 million cubic yards of sand may prove to be futile.
Hurricane Dorian ate the beach, experts say, along with what could be dozens of other beach replenishment projects along the southern Atlantic coast.
“That list of beach nourishment projects will be a long one—pretty much every project from central Florida to the North Carolina Outer Banks,” said Robert Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
“This storm is kind of like Matthew three years ago,” he added. “It may not do a lot of infrastructure damage if it stays offshore, but it will be a beach eater.”
According to the National Beach Nourishment Database maintained by NOAA and the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, Florida has received $1.53 billion since 1944 for nourishment projects, when sand is pumped or trucked onto beaches.
The picture is the same along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina—where taxpayers have shelled out roughly $2 billion for beach replenishment. North Carolina received roughly half of that.
Most of the cost to fortify beaches is borne by local, state and federal taxpayers and managed through the Army Corps of Engineers.
There are 33 nourishment projects currently in the works for the Army Corps’ South Atlantic Division, which stretches along the coast from Mobile, Ala., to Wilmington, N.C., according to Army Corps officials. Twenty-four of those are along the Atlantic coast from South Florida to North Carolina.
Dylan Davis, coastal program manager for the South Atlantic Division, said it will take days and maybe weeks to determine how much damage Dorian did to those projects. The Army Corps will send teams of engineers out to do beach assessments, he said.
“Every storm is a little different as it moves up the shoreline,” Davis said. “It would not be surprising to us to see some sort of damage, particularly in the central part of Florida where it stalled out for about 48 hours and they had those bands coming over them.”
Davis said an increase in storm speed can help minimize severe damage to fragile beaches. The storm picked up speed Wednesday, reaching about 9 mph.
“We are seeing that increase [in movement], and that’s certainly a good thing from an erosion standpoint,” Davis said. “Three to 5 miles per hour speed is not something we like at all.”
But other stakeholders, including environmental organizations, taxpayer watchdogs, and even some surfers and fishers, maintain that beach replenishment is an unsustainable cash vacuum, sucking up millions of taxpayer dollars every year to rebuild beaches that will simply wash away again.
They argue that beach replenishment encourages more development along fragile shorelines from which people should be retreating, not advancing.
“Sand moves out and the sand moves back. People don’t appreciate that it’s a natural coastal process,” said Martha Collins, an attorney who has represented opponents of beach nourishment projects, including in a landmark Florida case over what is known as the “Reach 8” project in Palm Beach.
She said solutions to coastal erosion should be comprehensive and account for multiple interests. “Are you just piling material on a beach so that it visually looks better? And do you have a false perception that that’s going to keep the ocean away? That’s not always the case.”
Numerous studies, including from insurers and the real estate industry, have noted that sea-level rise is one of the greatest threats to coastal communities nationwide and could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to address.
Young and his colleagues from the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines released a case study in July indicating that many shoreline communities have little appetite for retreat, in part because high-value beachfront properties provide a substantial tax base for local needs (Climatewire, July 9).
Others have gone further, saying beach replenishment is a government subsidy for wealthy property owners.
Kate Gooderham, managing director of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, isn’t buying it. “I have heard that argument, and they are uninformed people who are making it,” Gooderham said.
She added that critics “cherry-pick” beach nourishment projects at specific locations and skew the cost-benefit ratios of those projects to make them appear unbalanced.
“We’re going to have beach erosion with these storms, and the good thing is that we have restored beaches along a good portion of that coast, so we can lose sand and not lose buildings and the people who occupy them,” Gooderham said.
Tax revenue generated from high-value properties also helps pay for essential public services, including beach maintenance, she said, and wider beaches draw more tourists who spend more money. Moreover, she said the Army Corps of Engineers’ projects require that public access to beaches be protected and even expanded to receive full federal funding.
Davis, the Army Corps’ coastal program manager, said beach nourishment also helps meet other federal priorities, such as providing habitat for sea turtles, shorebirds and other species.
“Granted, there is the renourishment cost that needs to occur [in local communities],” he said. “But I would say the upside of these projects is they are a very environmentally sound way of protecting our coastlines. We can do hardened structures, and those are appropriate in some places, but the benefits beaches provide for habitat ... is huge.”
As the debate continues, new beach nourishment projects keep happening along the coast, including in Dorian’s path.
Last week, the small city of Tybee Island, Ga., east of Savannah, heralded a new $15 million nourishment project on its sandy beach. Dorian is expected to sweep along that part of the coast tonight. The Army Corps will shoulder $13 million of the cost. The state of Georgia will pay $2.6 million.
Mayor Jason Buelterman, at a beachside signing ceremony with Army Corps officials last week, said this project will be different.
“So in the past we were just building up the beach,” he said, according to a local press report. “This one, well assuming everything goes right and we get all the permits, allows us to build dunes and those dunes provide a critical line of protection from a hurricane.”
Work on the project will begin in November, after the 2019 hurricane season.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news atwww.eenews.net.