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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Beach renourishment fix puts Pleasure Island back on track, leaves Wrightsville Beach behind

Heavy equipment can be seen on the beach moving tons of sand to help widen the shore (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
The future of beach renourishment, which relies on federal dollars, has been uncertain this year. A new announcement details the path forward. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — North Carolina’s Congressional delegation has announced a partial solution in the quest to reclaim missing beach renourishment money. 

The path forward places Carolina and Kure beaches on track toward timely completion of the projects, but leaves Wrightsville Beach with many hurdles still to clear.

Government actors at all levels have been in search of a backup plan since January, when expected federal dollars for local beach renourishment vanished.

READ MORE: Funding for Wilmington-area beach nourishment disappears at last minute; local leaders shocked

U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC), and Sens. Richard Burr (R) and Thom Tillis (R), announced Monday new funding for the projects on Pleasure Island’s two beach towns has been approved by government gatekeepers within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the work, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The workaround involved asking the federal agencies to redirect unused funding from other Army Corps projects into the undertakings on Pleasure Island. The request had long been on the table, awaiting the go-ahead from federal officials. 

“We have been scrambling since we learned that there was no funding allocated for our beach renourishment,” Carolina Beach Mayor LeAnn Pierce said. “We continued to work on the plans and specs with hopes that this would happen at the last hour, and it has.”

Federal dollars dedicated to renourishing the shores of the three New Hanover County beach towns was approved in the federal omnibus spending bill late last year. Then it evaporated with the release of the Army Corps’ 2021 “Work Plan,” which made no mention of the projects. 

The omission caused concern for beach-town officials and the Congressional delegation. It only happens every 12 years that all three towns are due for simultaneous renourishment projects, as they are this year. Lagging one year behind could allow erosion to fester and the strands to deteriorate at a quicker pace. 

The announcement that money is available puts an end to the holding pattern and frees the local district of the Army Corps to move forward. 

Jed Cayton, public affairs specialist for the Army Corps Wilmington District, said bids will go out around mid-December and the contract can be awarded New Year’s Day. Carolina Beach officials said they expect beach renourishment to start in earnest in February 2022; it would conclude in April. 

“We’re super pumped about it,” Clayton said. 

A federal Army Corps spokesperson provided Port City Daily a statement on the omission of New Hanover County beaches in this year’s work plan:

“The annual work plan development is a collaborative process within the administration that considers all eligible programs, projects and activities for funding. Funds are allocated to the projects that are projected to provide the highest economic, environmental and life-safety returns on the nation’s investment and that meet congressional appropriations guidance. While not originally included in the FY21 work plan, USACE recognized the importance of the Pleasure Island coastal storm damage risk-reduction projects and is providing funding for them with the now-available appropriations.”

The case of Wrightsville Beach

With no offshore borrow site immediately attainable, Wrightsville Beach’s renourishment project faces a lengthy delay. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

While government players were moving to solve the quagmire over missing beach money, political winds were simultaneously shifting in regards to a federal policy with keen impact on the local beach renourishment formula. 

Historically, Wrightsville and Carolina beaches have used their neighboring inlets — Masonboro and Carolina, respectively — as reservoirs for acquiring the sand used for renourishment. 

The inlets, protected under the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), would typically be off-limits for dredging. But an exception in the statute — first deployed after CBRA’s implementation in the 1980s and later given the stamp of approval by the Trump administration in 2019 — allowed inlet dredging to remain the local status quo. 

Local officials previously told Port City Daily that close-to-home dredging in the nearby inlets is environmentally preferable to the alternative: offshore dredging. 

In July, the Biden administration made it impermissible for beach towns, like those in New Hanover County, to continue dredging areas protected by CBRA. 

READ MORE: New Biden administration policy could jeopardize beach renourishment formula for local towns

Details of the historic beach renourishment strategy for Wrightsville Beach, which involved dredging Masonboro Inlet. (Port City Daily/Courtesy USACE)

This forced Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach to re-evaluate their game plans — still without money in hand — and look offshore for a sand reservoir. (Kure Beach already sourced sand from offshore.) 

For Carolina Beach, finding such a location in the ocean proved to be a simple task. Now, with the just-announced federal dollars in tow, the two beaches on Pleasure Island will be able to stay true to the original timeline. 

Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County shore protection coordinator, said credit for the successes on Pleasure Island’s campaign is due to N.C. Congressional delegation and staff, as well as the Army Corps’ local arm at the Wilmington District.

Wrightsville Beach, in turn, faces uncertainty. The Biden administration has eliminated the prospect of dredging from Masonboro Inlet, and there is no quick fix in terms of an offshore site. Environmental analyses and the continued lack of funding will delay beach renourishment on Wrightsville Beach for at least a year. 

“The whole thing has been working fine for decades,” said Tim Owens, Wrightsville Beach town manager. “Now, we’re potentially moving offsite to an area where we don’t know what the impact is going to be, don’t know what the sand source and quality is going to be, or any of that.”

Owens said there is a study underway regarding offshore dredging for future Wrightsville Beach renourishment projects; it’s expected to be completed by next July. 

Clayton, the local Army Corps public affairs specialist, said as of last week, “Wrightsville does not have an approved borrow source and they do not have funding for this window.”

According to a 2019 Army Corps study, dredging Masonboro Inlet for beach renourishment requires 45 days of work from one dredge. Dredging offshore, typically a few miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, requires two dredges working 54 days each. 

When Masonboro Inlet is dredged, local officials said, the sand migrates back to the source point over the years, creating a replenishing stock. Offshore dredging disrupts a new 123 acres of ocean land each time beach renourishment is needed. 

Dredging in the ocean, as opposed to the inlet, could result in more than double the amount of “potential vessel strikes” on humpback and North Atlantic right whales, according to the Army Corps study

Groups like the Audubon Society, which previously sued the Trump administration over its interpretation of CBRA, take issue with the impact inlet dredging has on nesting bird populations. 

“I don’t think it’s a lost fight,” Owens said. “I think at this point we’re at where we’re at. We are continuing to express the concerns of going offshore and hoping that cooler heads will prevail.”

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