The N.C. Coastal Resources Commission recently approved the expanded use of sandbag seawalls. The new rule allows, among other things, sandbag seawalls to be placed in front of undeveloped lots. This could lead to entire islands being lined with sandbags, a fact noted by CRC chairman Frank Gorman.
The new rule will certainly lead to an increase in the rate of beach loss and an ever-increasing bill to the state taxpayers for beach replenishment to replace the lost beaches. The new rule will also reduce turtle nesting, prevent nesting of beach birds such as the endangered piping plovers and make access difficult for beachgoers.
Ironically, this new and very shortsighted rule was mandated by the 2015 legislature. The CRC, not the legislature, is the agency that is supposed to be the guardian of the state’s beaches. A rule with such a huge impact should have been studied in detail and explained with public hearings, and the science panel should have been consulted. If the legislative branch wants to control the quality of coastal development, it should dismiss the CRC and tell the members to go home.
In 1985 the state of North Carolina banned the use of seawalls along the 301 miles of the state’s open-ocean shoreline. At that time, it was already widely recognized that seawalls degrade beaches. Adaption of the rule banning seawalls was considered a major step forward in North Carolina’s efforts to preserve beaches for future generations.
Unfortunately, sandbag seawalls were allowed as a compromise exception to the rule but only as a temporary measure while a house was being moved back or demolished or a beach nourished. It was not understood at the time that there was no difference between sandbag seawalls and concrete walls in their effect on eroding beaches.
Sea walls, whether sandbags or concrete, placed on eroding coasts can be depended upon to destroy beaches. That’s because seawalls don’t address the myriad causes of erosion, so once a wall is put in, erosion continues and the beach narrows until it disappears. Time frames for such destruction range from two or three years to a decade. The only situation where seawalls don’t destroy beaches is the rare case of a shoreline that is not eroding.
Encouraging the use of sandbags to protect buildings, even though the bags destroy beaches, is another example of the plummeting degradation of North Carolina’s coastal management program. Everything is directed toward preserving development already in place and encouraging more development. More bridges are being built to take more people and businesses to the islands, environmentally sound rules are changed to make development easier and quality of sand in beach replenishment projects is ignored. Most important, long-term sea-level rise and its consequences are disregarded.
There is another way. While North Carolina encourages increased development along its barrier island shorelines, Great Britain considers the long-term environmental and monetary costs of defending developed shorelines as sea level rises. This is something we, in this country, have never done. The British study led to the recognition that some developed areas simply can’t be defended. In the same week that the CRC changed the sandbag rules, the Welsh coastal resort village of Fairbourne and a number of other small Welsh villages were slated for “decommissioning” within the next 40 years. In other words, they won’t be saved or protected from the encroaching sea.
North Carolina residents must insist that the legislature and the CRC take the long view and recognize that preserving beachfront buildings can lead to the loss of beaches, which of course is the reason the buildings are there to begin with. Some of the things that we can do in the immediate future to make sure the next generation has beaches are:
▪ Enforce the state’s anti-seawall regulations and remember that sandbags are seawalls, too.
▪ Institute a policy of retreat from the shoreline before the level of the sea rises more and erosion increases further.
▪ Allow no further high-rise construction on our barrier islands. Such buildings make retreat impossible.
▪ Do nothing to encourage more dense development on the islands, including the construction of bigger and better access bridges.
Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of geology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.