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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

One bill in Congress could help, not solve, the beach renourishment problem

Action in Congress could have an effect on the beach renourishment cost-share formula for New Hanover County towns. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The price tag of future beach renourishment events could be impacted by a bill proposed in Congress. If passed, it would require the federal government to pay more for sand-moving on Wrightsville and Carolina beaches. 

Last summer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife told the Army Corps of Engineers it would no longer be able to renourish beaches by removing sand from areas protected under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). The policy only affected the handful of communities — like Wrightsville and Carolina beaches — reliant on dredging sand from protected, coastal waters rather than offshore.

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

One provision of the Shoreline Health Oversight, Restoration, Resilience, and Enhancement (SHORRE) Act requires the federal government to pay for extra sand-moving costs when a legal requirement — like the updated CBRA interpretation — makes it so the Army Corps cannot take the cheapest course of action. (In the case of the two local beach towns, it would be to dredge from their adjacent inlets.) 

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill are backed by Democrats from Delaware and cosponsored by Louisiana Republicans. The House version, introduced Feb. 11, now awaits action in the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, of which Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC) is the ranking member. 

Influential in finding funds to keep Pleasure Island’s renourishment on schedule after local projects were neglected in Army Corps plans one year ago, Rouzer has publicly denounced the Biden administration’s interpretation of CBRA that prevents using sand from Masonboro and Carolina Beach inlets for renourishment projects. He supports the SHORRE Act provision that would have the government pay for cost increases created by legal requirements; it’s possible the provision could be placed into the next biennial water development package.

Stakeholders have told Port City Daily measures like the provision in the SHORRE Act could ease the burden created by the updated interpretation of CBRA, but still don’t address the root problem: Compared to offshore dredging, which disrupts a new section of ocean floor with each event, inlet dredging does less environmental harm to migrating sea turtles and whales, and minimizes the area of land disruption, officials have said. 

The change in stance from Fish and Wildlife came one year after the National Audubon Society filed suit against the Trump administration — which formally greenlit the dredging of sand from CBRA zones in some renourishment projects — in an effort to block federally sanctioned removal of sand from CBRA zones. 

Now, Wrightsville Beach, having historically dredged from Masonboro Inlet, is still in the process of securing an offshore borrow site for future renourishment. Carolina Beach, in turn, was able to quickly join together with Kure Beach, which already had authorizations for an offshore location — so despite all three beaches missing out on expected funds one year ago, operations on Pleasure Island have been able to keep schedule. 

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

Congress is also approaching action on an omnibus spending package for this fiscal year that is expected to dedicate beach renourishment funding to Carolina Beach. 

READ MORE: $20M beach renourishment project starting soon on Pleasure Island

In the proposed SHORRE Act, only a handful of beaches are specifically named as eligible to have the federal government pick up extra costs. In addition to the beaches of New Hanover County, the list is limited to Folly Beach, S.C., and a recurring beach renourishment project in Cape May, N.J. 

A 6-mile-long barrier island located a dozen miles south of Charleston, Folly Beach faces a similar struggle to Wrightsville, in that new rules from USFWS have stunted its formula for beach renourishment and will force the city to look for new sand offshore, where it’s more expensive. 

Aaron Pope, Folly Beach city administrator, said that, over the course of the city’s 50-year beach renourishment project timeline, the requirement to dredge sand offshore is expected to increase costs by $50 million. The beach is attempting to get an exemption from USFWS to maintain its status quo, which involves dredging protected parts of the Folly River area. 

“It’s so much cheaper and easier to get out the sand that’s basically right here, than it is to go miles offshore,” Pope said. 

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