Engineers try to buy time on the NC Outer Banks

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 30, 2014 

Federal park and wildlife officials usually are cool to the idea of scooping up sand to rebuild eroded beaches along the Dare County Outer Banks, but they warmed up last year after Gov. Pat McCrory said it was an emergency.

The state Department of Transportation plans a beach nourishment project this summer to shore up a perennially washed-out section of N.C. 12 at the Hatteras Island village of Rodanthe, after winning cautious approval from the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The S-Curves stretch of the highway is narrowly shielded from high tide by giant sandbags and artificial dunes, which are continually being repaired and reshaped by big yellow bulldozers.

DOT engineers have a longer-term fix in mind, a bridge that will lift more than 2 miles of N.C. 12 high above the surging ocean. They want to buy time – and provide a protective buffer for their three-year construction project – by building out a 100-yard-wide beach at Rodanthe.

The new beach will last a few years, if all goes well, until ocean storms wash all that sand away.

The Army Corps of Engineers, working with DOT, is seeking bids for the beach project, which could get underway before the end of July. Early estimates say the work could cost around $20 million, to be paid for with federal funds for Hurricane Sandy relief.

The 2-mile nourishment project will take place mostly within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge just north of Rodanthe. The lower half-mile of new sand will extend into the neighboring Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Hurricanes Irene and Sandy severed the highway there for weeks at a time in 2011 and 2012. A string of winter storms erased DOT’s repair work in early 2013. That’s when McCrory issued an emergency declaration, focusing on the state’s quest to keep the road open.

Life and property threatened

Federal wildlife and park officials had reservations about granting permission for the beach project – especially after the Corps of Engineers was unable to get the work done early this year, ahead of nesting season for protected sea turtles and shore birds.

The Park Service has an emphasis on meeting nature as it comes, without resisting the forces that change the landscape. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, puts a priority on preserving natural habitats for migratory birds at Pea Island.

But officials from both agencies recognized the urgency of McCrory’s concern about keeping the Outer Banks highway open.

“There was a significant threat to life and property,” said Steve Thompson, who oversees special park uses at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“If we didn’t approve it, then we were defying a governor’s declaration of emergency,” said Dennis Stewart, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “So where’s that going to get us?”

Stewart will keep an eye on the sand being dumped onto the shore. He is concerned about the impact of smothering tiny invertebrates that provide food for shore birds. DOT workers have promised to watch for sea turtles laying their eggs in the dunes, and hatchlings skittering into the surf.

“If we find a nest, we’ll work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to relocate the nest, or work in another area for a while and leave the nest alone,” said Beth Smyre, a DOT engineer overseeing the N.C. 12 project.

The Southern Environmental Law Center is waging a fight in the federal courts to block a related DOT Outer Banks project that would replace an aging N.C. 12 bridge over Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the mainland. Derb S. Carter Jr., who heads the law center’s Chapel Hill office, criticized the Rodanthe beach nourishment plan.

“It’s another in the long line of temporary solutions to Highway 12,” Carter said. “Much of the sand will be deposited on the refuge, and there is no emergency on the refuge. Hurricanes are a natural force, and the refuge will be fine.”

East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs says beach nourishment is a costly, risky effort to resist the relentless effects of sea-level rise and coastal storm dynamics.

“The deficiency of high-quality beach sand, steep shore-face geometry, and the extremely high energy of the Hatteras Island beaches may not be favorable for even short-term benefit of any beach nourishment project,” Riggs said by email.

The new beach may benefit private homeowners in the northern end of Rodanthe and a shrinking subdivision called Mirlo Beach, which has lost three rows of cottages to the Atlantic Ocean since the 1980s.

“Yeah, we think it’s great,” said Wes Hutchinson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who hopes in a few years to retire to a Mirlo Beach house he and his wife built in 2000.

“The emergency nourishment will at least buy a couple of years, which is great – not just for Mirlo but for the N.C. 12 problems,” Hutchinson said. “It’s good for us, and good for the whole island.”

Nourishment sought for Buxton

Dare County officials also are in talks with the Park Service about possible permission to restore another eroded beach, farther south on Hatteras Island near Buxton. The ocean has moved closer to N.C. 12 in one of several locations pegged by coastal geologists as likely spots where future storms will cut new inlets through the barrier island.

“Buxton needs to be included in the emergency declaration that Gov. McCrory did, and it certainly needs nourishment,” said Carol Dawson, whose family operates the Cape Hatteras Motel and other businesses in Buxton.

Bobby Outten, the Dare County manager, said he would like to forestall another breach that would sever the highway and cut off island residents from the mainland.

“Our thought is, let’s get ahead of it while it’s affordable – before it closes and becomes so expensive that nobody can do anything about it,” Outten said.

Park and wildlife officials figure they’ll be wrestling with more beach nourishment requests in coming years. Thayer Broili, resource management director for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, said the Park Service usually prefers to “let natural processes proceed” rather than use beach nourishment to reshape an eroded shoreline.

“It will continue to be an issue,” Broili said. “We tend not to like being in a development zone – that’s not what the national parks are about. On the other hand, we have to recognize that unless something is done, there may not be any beaches. We’re struggling with what to do.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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