Is beach nourishment making the NC coast more dangerous?
When Pleasure Island reopened after Hurricane Florence’s winds died down and rains stopped, residents returned to find waves lapping against a battered shoreline.
But the shoreline held throughout last fall’s long-lasting storm, with sand that had been pumped onto the strand and dunes keeping the swollen ocean from infrastructure and homes.
Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County’s shore protection coordinator, said, “When you turned around at Kure Beach, when the shoreline was eroded to the dune line, you still had that vegetated berm field protecting that coastal infrastructure.”
Florence’s damage is part of the reason, budget writers said, that the state budget includes $21.5 million for beach nourishment projects. Should North Carolina pass a budget containing those funds, it would come on the heels of $18.5 million in the state’s Florence disaster relief package, all adding up to the state’s first true effort to build its Coastal Storm Damage Mitigation — or beach nourishment — fund.
At the same time, longstanding North Carolina projects such as those in Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach are facing long-anticipated reductions in federal involvement, with draft U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studies indicating the federal government will reduce its support for each project from 65% of the total cost to 50%.
Jim Medlock, a project manager with the Corps’ Wilmington district, said, “That is different than the cost-sharing we’ve had historically on those projects up till now, which has been 65% (federal), 35% (local).”
The changes are due to a federal law passed in 1999 that lowered Corps involvement on projects pumping sand onto already nourished beaches.
State funding for beaches
Coastal communities have long been arguing that the General Assembly should take on a more active role in beach nourishment.
As it now stands, the state provides matching funds for federally authorized projects in the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s water resources development fund. That benefits nourishment in Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Ocean Isle Beach.
There is, however, no dedicated funding mechanism that provides state money for the projects. Lawmakers instead must decide how much money to include in the fund each year as part of the budget process.
A 2016 update to the state’s Beach and Inlet Management Plan said the General Assembly should consider creating a beach nourishment fund and a funding mechanism. In making that case, the report found tourists at North Carolina’s beaches have a direct economic impact of $1.5 billion.
In 2017, the state created a fund for beach nourishment, but did not provide funding for it. That was followed up in the short session with $5 million effectively earmarked for Carteret County’s beaches.
The now-vetoed budget is different, though, providing $11.5 million to the fund for disaster recovery in the first year of the biennium and $10 million in non-recurring funds in the second year. Nourishment grants would be limited to $2.5 million for each government and not require a match.
A spokesman for Gov. Roy Cooper confirmed the beach nourishment funds are included in the governor’s compromise budget.
Sen. Harry Brown, the Senate’s chief budget writer, said, “The biggest reason there’s more money is just the damage from the hurricanes. Plus, I think the importance of what it means to the economies of those coastal counties, especially right now, with those tourism dollars. As you can imagine, everyone wants to be at the beach right now.”
New Jersey and Florida have similar funds, said Derek Brockbank, the executive director of the American Beach & Shore Preservation Association, with Florida using a statewide sales tax to provide money for the beach fund.
“It’s really good that North Carolina is looking at creating a state-level fund,” Brockbank said. “I think more and more communities need to be doing it, and I think the communities that have those dollars in hand to do federal matching are more likely to be the ones that get federal dollars.”
NC disaster relief bill
The state also provided $18.5 million for beach nourishment in the Hurricane Florence disaster recovery bill last year, with Carteret County applying for $15.34 million of that fund for Bogue Banks, and Oak Island the remaining $3.16 million.
According to N.C. Department of Environmental Quality records, Florence caused an estimated $251.7 million in damages to North Carolina beaches. Bogue Banks reported $64.98 million, Surf City $63.59 million and North Topsail $49 million.
Greg “Rudi” Rudolph, the shore protection coordinator for Carteret County, said, “Florence was definitely a worse storm than (1999’s Hurricane) Floyd, and we had oceanfront flooding damage in Floyd all up and down Bogue Banks. In Florence, we didn’t have any oceanfront flooding damage. That’s a testament to all the nourishment we’ve done, and all the planning we’ve done.”
Carteret used local funds and sand dredged during federal harbor projects associated with the Port of Morehead City to place nearly 14 million cubic yards of sand on its beaches between 2001 and 2017, creating a series of 10 and 12 foot dunes in front of a 25 foot primary dune along Bogue Banks.
“We’ve been saving our pennies and saving it for a rainy day, and having that augmented with the state money is great,” Rudolph said. “Protecting the beach benefits everybody. All the tourism dollars flow upstream, downstream, sidestream.”
Other legislators, Brown added, are beginning to realize the impact beaches have on the state economy, possibly lessening opposition to a potential tax that would fund nourishment. The 2016 report suggested using a 0.5 percent seasonal sales tax, a 10 cents per $100 of value property tax on out-of-state residents, or a combined meals tax and land transfer fee to fund a $25 million nourishment fund.
“I look at (beaches) almost like you would the parks in the state,” Brown said. “The beaches belong to the public and the public is who uses the beaches, so I see them pretty much like I would any other park.”
Rob Young, the director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, has long been critical of federal involvement in beach nourishment, questioning how the Corps decides where to fund and why communities aren’t considering targeted retreat.
“I’m not completely uncomfortable with the state providing some contribution to beach nourishment projects,” Young said. “I’ve always felt the local contribution should be the most significant, and local communities should be creating mechanisms to pay for the projects themselves since they are the primary beneficiaries.”
Mechanisms already enacted in North Carolina coastal communities include the room occupancy taxes used by both Carteret and New Hanover counties, where a tax of 6% is levied on lodging, with the funds used to pay for beach nourishment.
Money for more beaches?
Following disasters, the federal government typically has renewed interest in paying for nourishment projects. After Superstorm Sandy, for instance, the Corps’ Philadelphia district used disaster relief money to fund initial construction of at least four previously authorized New Jersey projects totaling more than 33 miles of beach.
In North Carolina, there are four such federally authorized-not-funded projects, including Bogue Banks from Beaufort Inlet to Bogue Inlet; Dare County, covering about 10 miles of the Outer Banks; Surf City and North Topsail Beach; and West Onslow Beach, or the southern end of Topsail Island.
A supplemental disaster relief bill passed by Congress in June includes $740 million for shoreline protection projects. The Corps’ Wilmington district submitted all of the authorized but unfunded North Carolina projects for consideration for those funds.
“If we don’t get funding to do a project we can’t work on it, so that’s a way to get lots of projects that were on the backlog constructed,” said Bob Keistler, chief of civil works programs for the Corps’ Wilmington District.
The Corps, Keistler said, will likely know if any N.C. beaches are in line for funding in late August or early September.
Should any of the North Carolina beaches be chosen, initial construction would take place with the federal government initially providing the entire cost of the project and local partners paying back 35% over a 30-year period. Any maintenance nourishment would require the 50-50 cost share, with the projects competing for federal funds each time their regular renourishment cycle came around.
Young, though, is wary of using disaster relief funds to provide initial funding for large-scale beach nourishment projects.
“Federal dollars are getting harder to come by, except after storms,” Young said, “and if your primary strategy is waiting for a big storm to come for money to rain into the community, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.”
This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The N&O maintains full editorial control.