WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Now twice postponed, the plan to replenish sand on Wrightsville Beach after nearly five years is making traction, but an environmental assessment from last month reveals the site comes with negative consequences. It will cost more, take longer, require more dredging and be riskier to wildlife.
The dredge already comes with a lot of baggage.
Barred from pulling sand from Masonboro Inlet, a site the beach town has used for more than 50 years, the federal project must go offshore. The source: 364 previously undisturbed acres contaminated with tires and debris from a 1970s artificial reef.
Last summer, Port City Daily reported the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was moving the dredge site from the inlet to the reef due to a Coastal Barrier Resource Act rule change. The new interpretation bans federal money from being spent on projects that would pull sand out of the law’s protected zones. This includes nearby Masonboro and Mason inlets on both ends of Wrightsville Beach.
The beach was scheduled for renourishment in 2022; the reinterpretation of the law derailed that. When the new site was identified, Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens said he hoped the sand would make it to the beach by April 2023.
However, the project timeline has now been pushed back another year.
USACE spokesperson Jed Cayton said USACE has been doing everything it can to get sand on the beach.
“We have been in the process of writing an environmental assessment to get permits to use an offshore site and that is what has postponed the nourishment,” Cayton said.
A draft of the assessment analyzes three options to address beach erosion. The first is to do nothing. While the Masonboro Inlet site remains off-limits, its impacts were included in the study to compare to the offshore tire reef, the proposed plan of action.
Before picking a dredge site, five areas were studied by USACE — one was eliminated due to shoreline impacts, another two removed because they were completely outside Wrightsville Beach’s three nautical miles of water and therefore more costly to access.
When USACE narrowed in on the remaining two areas, it found hundreds of thousands of tires that were suspected of once being part of a reef, but were strewn across the ocean over time, along with concrete pipe and rope. The surveyors also found 1,700 “magnetic anomalies,” which can sometimes indicate shipwrecks, but were determined to be the remnants of steel cables.
Amidst the debris, USACE was able to locate seven potential dredge areas where they hopefully will be able to avoid sucking up tires. Two of them partially outside the three miles would require an agreement with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Without it, though, USACE thinks enough sand could be gathered from the other areas.
USACE can use two pieces of equipment: a trailing suction hopper dredge, or what was used in Masonboro Inlet, a hydraulic cutterhead. Hopper use would extend the project timeline to 110 days (55 in the unlikely chance USACE uses two). Only 50 days would be needed for the cutterhead.
All three options will take longer than former Masonboro Inlet dredges, which took 45 days. The project will cover 300 feet of beach per day, a slower pace, to allow marine life the chance to relocate.
The assessment also analyzes impacts to wildlife species in the area, concluding the risk of significant harm is very low. The species facing particular concern are sea turtles, an endangered species.
The plan states relocation trawling may be necessary depending on the amount of turtles in the area at the time and the project method. However, turtle injury or death is highly unlikely and methods of avoiding them in their habitat are highly effective, according to Cayton.
During Carolina Beach and Kure Beach’s recent renourishments, both sourced offshore, there were no turtle fatalities, Cayton shared.
The main impact could be nesting patterns. The assessment states:
“Based on post-renourishment monitoring, in most cases, nesting success decreases during the year following renourishment as a result of escarpments obstructing beach accessibility, altered beach profiles, and increased compaction. However, when done properly, beach renourishment projects may mitigate the loss of nesting beach when the alternative is severely degraded or non-existent habitat.”
From 2009 to 2021, there were 89 reported nests along the Wrightsville Beach shore. The assessment states habitat and nest monitoring will occur during the dredge.
Benthic organisms — starfish, anemones, sponges, sea urchins, crabs, bivalves, etc. — could see “short-term reversible negative impacts” due to environmental disruption, but they are expected to return within two years.
The assessment shows the Masonboro Inlet plan to be less risky with wildlife impact, mainly due to the reduced timeframe and area coverage — 154 versus 364 acres.
A major difference between the projects is the erosion impact to the surrounding coastline. Because Masonboro Inlet’s sand is replenished by longshore drift — the transportation of sediment down a coastline — pulling from the system is described as a “recycling” of sand.
The offshore site is restored on a slower basis. Also, by removing sand and plunking it on the beach, it could increase pile-ups in Masonboro or Mason Inlet. Those pathways are dredged separately from beach renourishment for navigation purposes. With more buildup, they could need clearing more often.
USACE is only in charge of maintaining the Masonboro Inlet crossing, with an estimated cost of $5 to $10 million each dredge. The estimated cost for Mason Inlet is $10 to $15 million.
Additionally, the offshore dredge, estimated between $10 and $25 million, will itself cost more than the Masonboro Inlet project, according to Cayton. The funds are anticipated to be covered by federal dollars subject to their availability.
Like sand through an hourglass
Since 1939, Wrightsville Beach has been one of the most-replenished beaches on the East Coast, according to the assessment, and has been funded under the widest variety of federal authorizations of any beach in the United States. After first using the inlet in 1965, the town was set to borrow sand from Masonboro for another 50 years.
The inlet has been designated a CBRA zone under the The Coastal Barrier Resources Act since 1982. The act protects undeveloped coastal areas — Masonboro Island is one of them — and prohibits federal funding from being used for development projects within those areas. The intention was to eliminate federal responsibility for building structures in coastal barriers. Development in those areas is associated with natural resource loss, threats to human life, health, and property, and the expenditure of millions of tax dollars each year.
USACE was operating under an interpretation of the law’s exemptions, allowing it to use the sand because it was for shore stabilization, not development. In 2019, one decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upheld that removing sand from a CBRA zone for shoreline protection outside of it was included in the act’s exemptions.
That same year, a Wrightsville Beach validation report extended the project to 2036; the next renourishment cycle was scheduled for 2022, aligning with Carolina Beach and Kure Beach’s schedules.
In 2021, USACE did not include any of the three beaches in its annual work plan.
Then in July, the Biden administration reversed the 2019 CBRA interpretation, essentially excluding federal money from being used toward the Masonboro Inlet dredge.
By October, state leaders had gotten USACE to utilize unused funding for Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, both of which had located offshore sites. Their projects were completed on schedule in spring 2022.
There was no quick-fix for Wrightsville Beach, however, and the search for a site delayed the project a year.
Rep. David Rouzer and both North Carolina’s U.S. Senators announced in January 2022 $11.6 million for the beach renourishment project on Wrightsville Beach had been included in federal legislation. The money was tied to USACE’s work plan for the Disaster Relief and Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2022. The remaining cost will be covered by USACE, making the dredge — wherever it would be — a fully funded federal feat.
By the summer, the offshore tire site was found but New Hanover County pushed back on the plan’s potential hazards.
A letter from the county manager’s office indicated:
“NHC considers the use of this offshore borrow site as an extreme and unnecessary risk given [Masonboro] Inlet’s borrow site’s quality, quantity, accessibility, minimal ecological detriments and regulatory compliance.”
But Wrightsville Beach was — and still is — in desperate need of sand.
Last year, Owens reported most of the beach’s berm is gone, limiting the space available for beachgoers, who were creeping up closer to the dunes. Emergency vehicles have a hard time traveling across the soft sand, and the town has already restricted access to the bare minimum of emergency vehicles by eliminating trash trucks earlier in the year.
On Friday, Owens told PCD the town will continue to do what it can to see the project through. He suspects it will be bid out this summer.
[Editor’s Note: USACE originally told PCD they were in charge of maintaining the Mason’s Inlet crossing, but not Masonboro Inlet — yet, the inverse is correct. The article has been updated.]
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org