SOUTHEASTERN N.C. –– The beach renourishment campaigns of Wrightsville Beach and Pleasure Island, normally routine missions, have faced roadblocks this year.
The federal government largely bankrolls the moving of new sand to the populated local barrier islands, a temporary antidote for erosion that rebuilds lost beach. In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the executive branch agency that oversees all federal beach renourishment work, made public that money expected by Wrightsville Beach and Pleasure Island for these works would not be available this year.
Every 12 years the cycles for both islands overlap and beach renourishment projects are simultaneously scheduled. The money local officials thought was locked in would have funded sand-moving during the environmental window later this year and into spring 2022.
The revelation that money wasn’t coming pushed local leaders, politicians and government employees to pursue creative paths to a timely solution, and also to plan for the scenario of a one-year delay by solidifying next year’s coffers.
Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach were also singled out in a recent U.S. Department of the Interior legal interpretation of a 1982 law with major implications for how the area’s beach nourishment gets done.
Taking sand from nearby inlets for the renourishment had long been the method used by Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, but that appears impossible now after the federal opinion that sand can’t be removed from the protected area for renourishment projects.
The two beach towns were part of a small group countrywide able to make use of an exception in the 1982 Coastal Barrier Resources Act that allowed local protected inlets to be dredged for sand. This exception was formally recognized by the Trump administration in 2019, then stopped by the new administration’s reinstatement of an earlier position.
Combined, both funding woes at the federal level and the Interior Department’s new CBRA interpretation have put Wrightsville Beach and Pleasure Island at serious risk of falling behind on their renourishment timelines.
Budgets and a policy
Seven months after the funding issue came into focus, the path forward is becoming more clear, with local, state and federal stakeholders arriving at an understanding on what will happen next.
The under-negotiations North Carolina budget bill, for the fiscal year that began over a month ago, includes $4.75 million for Carolina Beach renourishment work and $3.487 million for Wrightsville Beach’s project costs.
“New Hanover County is pleased to see that funding for the state portion of costs related to Coastal Storm Damage Reduction projects was included in both the Senate and House versions of the proposed state budget,” said Tim Buckland, New Hanover County intergovernmental affairs manager, in a statement. “We thank our state legislators for placing a high priority on these critical infrastructure projects.”
On the federal scene, where the bulk of the money pot sits, an appropriations package recently passed by the House of Representatives includes earmarks for both Wrightsville Beach and Pleasure Island.
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer pushed for the specific line items. Wrightsville Beach would receive $10.08 million for its project; Carolina Beach and Kure Beach would receive $11.55 million. (The appropriations package still needs to clear the U.S. Senate.)
If these proposed allocations hold steady and make it into law, the three beach renourishment projects in New Hanover County would have more solid footing. But still, the projects would be delayed by a year since there’s not enough time to manifest the budget money into this year’s dredging cycles.
But for Pleasure Island, stakeholders think a solution exists that would keep the schedule and bypass the waiting.
The new CBRA interpretation compels Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach to look offshore for dredging sites (Kure Beach already uses an offshore dredge site to renourish its strand).
Rouzer and local Army Corps officials submitted a proposal to upper level bureaucrats that would “reprogram” funding from an unrelated corps project. If there’s unused money available nearby, it could potentially be redirected to the Pleasure Island projects.
“Carolina and Kure Beach — we’re still hopeful,” David Connolly, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps’ Wilmington district, said in an interview. “Right now the Office of Management and Budget is kind of looking for money, if you will. They’re seeing if they can reprogram money from other construction projects that haven’t used it.”
Solidifying an offshore site to dredge requires environmental studies and a layered approval process — but Carolina Beach is already eligible to use a site already equipped with permits.
What stands in the way of renourishment commencing this winter in Pleasure Island is the lack of funding, Connolly said.
“Those two beaches, if we get funding, we think we can move forward in this cycle as well,” Connolly said. “Hopefully we get money for those, and those would go in this window too.”
Rouzer questioned a senior Army Corps official in a June congressional hearing, but received no guarantees about the viability of the proposed reprogramming-of-funds plan.
“We are still hopeful that the Biden Administration will soon green-light funding identified by the Army Corps that could be used for these projects,” Rouzer said in a statement.
“However, should that not happen, I am pleased that my colleagues who serve on the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives have agreed to specify funding in the annual appropriations bill for these projects at my request.”
Wrightsville Beach, which lacks access to a ready-to-go ocean dredging site, must start the process from scratch. Its standard reservoir, Masonboro Inlet, is now off limits. Connolly said Wrightsville Beach will likely experience a one-year delay for the scheduled projects, given the new administrative steps required before ocean dredging could begin.
“We just execute what the policy is,” Connolly said. “The policy is we cannot use sand from a CBRA zone and put it outside a CBRA zone. That’s what we are moving on.”
Wrightsville Beach Mayor Darryl Mills said town leaders have been disappointed in the irregular outcome of this year’s situation. In a virtual call recently held among beach stakeholders, the Army Corps laid out updates on the situation and talked about a path forward.
“When we had the Zoom meeting with the corps — and various parties, county, all the towns, et cetera, I guess a few weeks ago — relative to this topic,” Mills said. “Somebody made the comment: ‘Well there’s plenty of sand at Wrightsville Beach.’”
But that’s not the case, Mills said. “If you come here at high tide. There’s almost no beach.”
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