We keep rebuilding our beaches, but what are the long-term costs?
Spring is high season for beach replenishment projects along the Carolinas coast. They're popular with waterfront property owners and communities that rely on beach tourism. But they're also increasingly expensive. And then there are the coastal scientists, who say they make no sense environmentally, especially as sea levels rise.
A slurry of water and sand gushes from a rusting 30-inch pipe running about 1½ miles along Ocean Isle Beach, on North Carolina's southeast coast. Bulldozers level and shape the sand to rebuild the shrunken beach.
"This sand is being dug from the inlet area portion of the island, and is being pumped hydraulically to this point, where it is discharged," said Rolando Serrano, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers construction engineer working on the project.
"The mixture of material that you see here varies, but on average, it'd be 70% water, 30% sand or solids," he said, over the roar of rushing water. "So, when it comes out of here, a majority of it has to be water, so that it can flow these distances, and we're talking miles of pipe. It gets the sand here."
This $8.7 million project is rebuilding a beach that has narrowed and sloped off during storms and high tides since the last replenishment four years ago. It's the sixth in a series of projects going back 20 years that have tried to replace what the ocean has taken.
Bob Keistler, the Army Corps project manager, points to the first row of houses facing the beach.
"Water was hitting these sandbags and was under these houses before we started building this project," Keistler said. "The locals are happy with this because (they) were worried about losing their houses."
Eroding beaches are a big worry for local officials.
"The beach is the golden egg, at Ocean Isle Beach," said Dean Walters, Ocean Isle's mayor pro tem.
"Through projects like this we're able to maintain property values. We're able to have a place for people to come in and visit. And so it's … one of our key projects for the whole year," he said.
The island already has lost many beachfront houses, Keistler said as he pointed a the row of houses facing the beach.
"So this is Third Avenue. So there used to be a Second Avenue and a First Avenue. Gone," he said.
The Army Corps manages these projects under 50-year contracts that have to justify the expense. That will get harder with climate change, which now is considered in the cost-benefit analysis for each project, Keistler said.
"In theory, if sea-level rise goes to a high level, these projects are gonna be hard to justify in the future," Keistler said.
Houses and streets are gone
Many of the houses on First and Second avenues at the east end of Ocean Isle eventually fell into the sea or were destroyed in storms. Mayor Debbie Smith used to live in one of them.
"I had a house close to the end of Third Street that is now gone. I did sell it before it collapsed one night. And when I built, I was fourth row from the ocean. And I built that house probably in '79, maybe '80 and lived there for a good number of years. But the erosion kept marching back," Smith said.
Maintaining the beach has been a never-ending battle, Smith said.
"Being so close to the inlet with those tidal influences around the inlet, every time we pumped it out there that close to the inlet, it just (returned) to the inlet," she said.
Her solution is to do more. Smith led a decade-long legal fight for another engineering project at the east end of the island, called a "terminal groin." It's an $11 million rock jetty, paid for with tourism taxes and other town funds that acts as a barrier for sand.
The terminal groin was built at the same time as this year's beach replenishment. Engineers tell the mayor it will slow beach erosion.
"Barring any major weather events, they expect it will extend the life expectancy of this storm damage reduction project to six or seven years and possibly longer," Smith said.
And that would save taxpayers money, says Smith. As a participant in an ongoing Army Corps of Engineers project, the town pays 35% of beach rebuilding costs — about $3 million this year. They'll ask the state to pay half of that. The federal government pays the remaining 65%.
Projects like these are happening all along the East Coast, Gulf Coast and West Coast. Orange County, California, is spending $23 million right now to pump sand back onto a diminished beach. And those costs are adding up.
Not including this year's projects, federal, state and local governments have spent more than $1 billion on North Carolina beach renourishment since the 1950s, adjusted for inflation. In South Carolina, the figure is more than $600 million. That's according to data collected by the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
Those dollar figures don't capture the environmental cost, said coastal geologist Rob Young, the program's director.
For example, when sand is dredged offshore, it kills organisms that live on the ocean floor, says Young. That affects fish that feed on them. And that in turn affects birds and other shore animals.
"These are dynamic places. So if you just did this once, those ecosystems would recover over time. But the problem is, we don't do it once, right, we do it over and over again. Beach nourishment projects require constant maintenance," Young said.
How often depends on the community. Some places in New Jersey and Delaware are replenished every two years, Young said. In the Carolinas, it can be every three or four years.
Climate change is a factor, too
Now add climate change to all this — including more intense storms and accelerating sea-level rise. It's a recipe for more beach destruction and even higher costs.
A report last month from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration projects the water levels along the East Coast will rise an average of 10 to 12 inches over the next 30 years. That's equal to the total increase over the past 100 years.
"If we don't acknowledge what's happening, the economy of barrier islands is not going to survive," said Stan Riggs, a coastal geologist at East Carolina University.
"We can do it for a while. But the shoreline keeps moving, the shore gets steeper and steeper," Riggs said.
He said 30 years ago, the U.S. renourished about 15 miles of barrier islands every five or 10 years. Now, it's 125 miles every few years.
Despite environmental concerns, projects continue
But even as scientists raise warning flags, communities keep pumping sand — at skyrocketing costs. Just to mobilize equipment costs $3 million to $4 million before any dredging starts. And there's growing competition for scarce funds. Army Corps' officials say every year some of their work goes unfunded. In some cases, local officials have to seek funding elsewhere or fund the projects from town or county funds.
Over on Oak Island, about 20 miles east of Ocean Isle Beach, workers are completing the second phase of a two-year beach renourishment project that will cost $29 million. It's repairing damage from hurricanes Matthew in 2015 and Florence in 2018. About $18 million of the cost is being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The town is paying the rest.
And the town is in the midst of a study that could lead to a long-term replenishment program.
Oak Island spokesman Mike Emory said visitors are the town's lifeblood.
"It's how all of the towns in our area and along all the coasts really survive. Tourism is a vital part. Without that beach out there, you don't have one of the main sources of industry, of economic growth that we have," Emory said.
Residents like Diana and Nelson Bareis are grateful for the work. They bought their beachfront vacation house on Oak Island last winter. Within a month, a nor'easter blew in during high tide, water rushed over the dunes and the first floor flooded.
"That storm on January 3 wiped out the whole dune, pushed the sand up around the house. It was king tide, high tide. It all hit at the right time," Nelson Bareis said.
They spent thousands of dollars on a temporary dune repair. And they have watched as the sand pumping operation moved westward up the beach toward their house.
Oak Island's sand pumping project will more than double the width of the beach. But as climate change continues, they know this won't be the last project. Diana Bareis knows some residents are concerned about tax increases. But she said she would pay more to keep the ocean away.
"I would," she said. "Of course, I would like state and federal (governments) to help. But I would be game. I mean, hey, we have an investment, you know? So if it means raising everyone's taxes, I mean …"
The question is how long there will be state and federal funds.
Coastal geologist Stan Riggs warns that if we continue to thwart the natural movement of sand, we'll eventually wind up with no beaches — just eroding cliffs.
"If we don't realize what in the world is going on, the golden goose will be not so golden anymore," he said.
These barrier islands, said Riggs, belong to the sea and the storms.