Thursday, April 18, 2024

USACE reverses course again to use Masonboro Inlet for WB dredge under emergency exception

Rough seas at the south end of Wrightsville Beach (Port City Daily photo/MICHAEL PRAATS)
USACE will use Masonboro Inlet under an emergency exception to the Coastal Barrier Resources Act for the upcoming beach renourishment. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — The plan to stabilize the shore at Wrightsville Beach has come full circle; the United States Army Corps of Engineers will go back to Masonboro Inlet for this winter’s beach renourishment, no longer using an offshore site.

Last week, USACE, the federal agency that organizes dredge projects for local beach towns, decided to use an emergency exception to the Coastal Barrier Resource Act. As interpreted by President Joe Biden’s administration in 2021, the law prevents federal dollars from being used to pull sand from the inlet for beach renourishment — except when life, land or property is being threatened adjacent to the inlet.

READ MORE: It’s been 57 months since WB was renourished — and it is delayed again

“It’s always been an emergency,” USACE Wilmington District spokesperson David Connolly said.

Last year, town manager Tim Owens reported most of the beach’s berm was gone, limiting 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 already restricted access last summer to the bare minimum by eliminating trash trucks

Without more sand, the situation continues to worsen. 

Wrightsville Beach has not been renourished since 2018, with the next scheduled renourishment planned for 2022 — missed due to the reinterpretation and prolonged search for a new borrow site.

Port City Daily asked Connolly why USACE did not enact the emergency exception sooner; he said the agency thought the best way to proceed was to avoid the CBRA zone altogether. 

USACE located a sand bar off the Wrightsville Beach coast in July 2022 to use instead. The site comes with some baggage, namely thousands of tires littered from a 1970s man-made fish reef that the dredgers would have to dodge. If they were caught up in the dredge, they would spew to shore among the rest of the sand.

After reevaluating logistics, USACE changed course and decided the most efficient way to get sand on the beach was to forgo the offshore site for the emergency exception. 

Connolly would not provide more details on the decision-making process.

USACE will use tens of million from its Flood Control & Coastal Emergencies fund, which Wrightsville Beach qualified for after Hurricane Florence in 2018. 

In January, North Carolina’s 7th congressional district’s Rep. David Rouzer introduced legislation creating a specific exemption to the CBRA federal fund restriction. It states the rule does not apply to funds for a borrow site located within the system if it has been in use for more than 15 years.

Wrightsville Beach has used Masonboro Inlet for 57 years. 

If passed, Wrightsville Beach — along with Carolina Beach which uses Carolina Beach Inlet — would be able to return to using an adjacent inlet for sand projects. 

Both New Hanover County commissioners and Wilmington City Council passed their own resolutions in support of the proposal in March.

On May 10, Wrightsville Beach Mayor Daryll Mills joined Rouzer in a legislative hearing for the resolution, H.R. 524, in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries to speak in favor.

“If Wrightsville Beach experiences one more major storm, the devastation to property could be catastrophic, costing taxpayers, as well as the National Flood Insurance program, significantly more,” Rouzer said during the hearing.

“The recent interpretation of CBRA, which prohibits us from using Masonboro Inlet, is part of a broad sweeping ‘you can’t do this’ approach,” Mills said. “I recognize in some places that may be appropriate, but we have over 50 years of active, ongoing activity that shows that’s not the case for us.”

Unless H.R. 524 passes, the USACE may need to return to the offshore site for its next scheduled dredge four years from now. Until then, the agency stated it does not plan to finalize its environmental assessment of the location, needed to move ahead in the future. 

USACE released a draft report in February detailing the tire-laden offshore dredge site. It found the offshore project would cost more, take longer, require more dredging and present added risk to wildlife than the Masonboro Inlet option. 

“Four years from now we’d have to look at what the chances are, what type of funding that we have, and what the current rules and regulations are in place are,” Connolly said.

Masonboro Inlet, Mason and Carolina Beach inlets have been designated CBRA zones since 1982. The act protects undeveloped coastal areas and prohibits federal funding from being used for development 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 and Kure beaches’ schedules. 

But in 2021, USACE did not include any of the three beaches in its annual work plan due to an influx of projects and lack of funding to cover them all. 

That July, the Biden administration reversed the 2019 CBRA interpretation, essentially excluding federal money from being used toward the Masonboro Inlet dredge. One year prior, the National Audubon Society filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior over the 2019 interpretation, arguing sand mining weakens coastal buffers, destroys sensitive habitat crucial to a number of species and impacts water quality — something USACE and Wrightsville Beach refute. 

“There’s been no evidence of any detrimental impacts on the ecosystem around Masonboro Inlet or the sound areas around Wrightsville Beach — none,” Mills said during the May 10 hearing. 

By October, state leaders had gotten USACE to utilize unused funding for Carolina and Kure beaches, 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. 

Rouzer and both North Carolina’s U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr announced in January 2022 $11.6 million for Wrightsville Beach’s renourishment project 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 a fully funded federal feat.

The project is set to occur in the standard Nov. 16 to March 31 window. Since the town has used Masonboro Inlet for years, the environmental clearance is already in place to move forward with bid solicitation this summer.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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