SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — For decades Wrightsville and Carolina beaches have operated under a beach renourishment ritual that local officials say is environmentally sound and cost effective.
Now the Biden administration has moved to upend this status quo with a new interpretation of existing law, which, despite its intention of protecting coastal resources, would do more harm than good, local officials said.
In projects overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dredgers borrow sand from the Masonboro Inlet area every four years and move it north to replenish the sediment lost to erosion on the tourist-populated Wrightsville Beach shore. Likewise, the Carolina Beach Inlet serves as the reservoir for the sand used to renourish Carolina Beach every three years.
The clockwork cycles are designed to mimic the forces of nature. The sand dredged from the two inlets reinforces the dunes and berms of the beach towns, slowing down the unavoidable grip of erosion. Then, the sand on the beaches migrates back to the inlets, creating a self-replenishing stockpile of sand that can be utilized again, time after time.
But this formula was recently dealt a blow from the federal government that could make it impossible for the beach towns to procure federal funding for future undertakings under this model.
The inlet zones in question are protected by the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). The 1982 law restricts federal spending for ventures, including beach renourishment, within certain coastal territories along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico.
Through bureaucratic maneuvering in the 1990s and Washington D.C. politicking, Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach were allowed to make use of CBRA sand to replenish their beaches. They operated under an exception — codified by the U.S. Army Corps in 1998 — that gives permission for sand from Masonboro and Carolina Beach inlets (within the CBRA zones) to be used for renourishment activities on the two beach towns (outside the CBRA zones).
In 2019 members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, including Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, as well as Rep. David Rouzer, asked the Trump administration to weigh in — just as important reauthorizations for the area’s beach renourishment projects were on the horizon.
Former Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt agreed with the 1998 opinion of the U.S. Army Corps — reinforcing the county’s ability to continue renourishing the beaches using the inlets.
A Change in Opinion
On July 14 of this year, the Biden administration’s Department of the Interior took the opposite stance. The department issued a new interpretation of CBRA that overrode the Trump-era interpretation and precludes federal dollars from being spent to move sand from within CBRA zones to outside the protected areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acts as the primary CBRA enforcer.
Beach renourishment projects are eight-figure endeavors that are cost prohibitive for the beach towns to take on by themselves. The existing cost-split for the area’s projects has the federal government footing 65% of the bill for Wrightsville Beach and 50% of the Carolina Beach project costs.
Under the strictest reading of the new interpretation, if Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach want to keep receiving federal dollars for beach renourishment, they’ll have to start drawing sand from an offshore source rather than the inlets. (Kure Beach already uses offshore sand outside CBRA’s reach for beach renourishment operations, so it is unaffected by this change).
Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County’s shore protection coordinator, said if forced to look offshore for sand, miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, the beaches’ renourishment efforts would experience inflated price tags and have damaging environmental consequences.
“If we’re comparing an inlet borrow site with an offshore borrow site,” Bedsole said, “there are more impacts to migrating whales, more impacts to staging female loggerhead turtles getting ready to come to the beach, more impacts to benthic bottoms each time you have to find a new spot. Those impacts are greater out there than here.”
Tim Buckland, the county’s intergovernmental affairs manager, agreed.
“If that actually came to pass, it would be more expensive and more environmentally damaging, which is the irony in all of this,” Buckland said. “Because CBRA’s intention is to reduce costs, reduce wasteful spending and be more environmentally friendly.”
After the Trump administration underpinned the exception to CBRA that allows a handful of beach towns on the East Coast to draw sand from protected areas, the Audubon Society filed suit.
They said the ruling would have a negative impact on certain bird populations that congregate within CBRA zones. That case has yet to see a ruling, but the Biden administration’s newest opinion on the topic took the exact action that the Audubon Society hoped to see.
Howard Marlowe, the president of Coastal Strategies, a federal lobbying firm, said that alongside Audubon’s legal maneuvers to overturn the Trump administration’s ruling, they also pitched the administration directly in pursuit of their endgame.
“At the same time, they went back in a non-legal approach, Audubon did, to go to the administration and say, ‘Hey, we want you to overturn this decision,’” Marlowe said. “I wouldn’t call it conspiratorial; I would say that it’s the case of one administration deciding that it didn’t like what the other one did.”
Marlowe, like Bedsole and Buckland, has a vested interest in keeping alive the practice of borrowing sand from within CBRA zones for beach renourishment. His clients include a New Jersey town affected by the new ruling. (He is not New Hanover County’s federal lobbyist).
“The Corps will likely comply with the Fish and Wildlife decision, which I think is the wrong decision on the part of Fish and Wildlife,” Marlowe said. “It’s contrary to science. Nobody has said that harm was done to the habitat in and around the CBRA Zone.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps Wilmington District said in a statement: “Right now, USACE is currently working through the Administration’s new direction on compliance with the CBRA. In our region, the Wilmington District team is coordinating with our higher headquarters as well as with our U.S. Fish & Wildlife partners to ensure the continued protection of the Coastal Barrier Resources System.”
Buckland stands firm in a belief that Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach will be able to continue under the status quo — the previous administration’s position — since beach renourishment operations in New Hanover County have already been authorized by Congress through 2035. (Fish and Wildlife did not respond to a question about the interpretation’s specific impact on New Hanover County.)
“What happened last week doesn’t change those authorizations,” Buckland said. “I think it’s important to note that while this interpretation was disappointing, our projects remain as is for the next 14 years now.”
In a “frequently asked questions” document recently released by Fish and Wildlife, it stated: “Effective immediately, federally-funded actions and projects that seek to dredge sand from within the [Coastal Barrier Resource System] for nonstructural shoreline stabilization outside of the CBRS will no longer be eligible for consideration.”
Buckland said the county has asked for clarity on the administration’s interpretation — whether it means that future authorizations will require offshore borrow sites, or if the already authorized projects will have to be reworked.
Complicating the situation is the fact that, despite receiving appropriations in last year’s federal spending package, the beach renourishment costs for all three New Hanover County beach towns did not receive funding through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its annual work plan.
“We’re in dire need of some additional sand,” Wrightsville Beach Mayor Darryl Mills said. “I’m hoping we can come to some kind of resolution sooner rather than later, to get sand back on our beaches.”
Local and state officials, alongside Rouzer, N.C.’s two senators and Gov. Roy Cooper, continue to fight for this federal beach renourishment money so the projects can remain on schedule.
“I can’t predict anything when it comes to the federal government,” Buckland said. “I don’t know if there will be pushback or not. They have issued their opinion, and that’s what it is, an opinion and an interpretation of existing statute.”
Rouzer sent a statement through a spokesperson that said the Biden administration’s recent game-changing interpretation of CBRA “defies common sense and is an example of how bureaucrats making policy changes to please left-wing environmentalists can obstruct critical infrastructure projects.”
“Our local beach communities rely on consistent Army Corps maintenance to protect life, property, and our critical tourism economy in the event of a natural disaster,” Rouzer said in the statement. “If they cannot use sand from traditional inlet borrowing sites, beach renourishment project costs will increase and the Biden Administration will be jeopardizing hurricane and flood protection, public and private infrastructure, small businesses and our local economies.”
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