Friday, June 14, 2024

Out of options, WB chooses offshore dredge site, may disturb 50-year-old tire reef

Most of the Wrightsville Beach’s berm is gone, limiting the space available for beachgoers, who are now setting up camp closer to the dunes. Vehicles are having a harder time traveling across the soft sand, and the town has already restricted access to the bare minimum of emergency vehicles. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon).

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — Sand is running out along the shores of Wrightsville Beach. A risky offshore-dredging plan seems to be the only path forward. 

The town’s renourishment plan for April 2023 will not pull dirt from Masonboro Inlet, like it has done for years. Instead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who fund and execute the town’s renourishment, have their sights set on two offshore sand bars around a mile outside the mouth of Masonboro Inlet. 

READ MORE: Congress approves renourishment money for Wrightsville Beach

There’s only one problem: The sites are near an artificial fish habitat created with 300,000 tires. 

In the 1970s, the Department of Marine Fisheries started a tire reef program to attract fish. The practice has been discontinued for many years, but tires still float loose and wash up on Wilmington beaches and other coastal communities, especially during storms.

According to Wrightsville Beach Town Manager Tim Owens, USACE calculated that enough sand could be pulled from the sand bars even if they worked around the tires, which is a best-case scenario. Removing the tires completely would take a lot of time — time the beach doesn’t have — but disturbing them could cause damage to the environment.

The town’s Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project is 100% funded by the federal government.

Government officials are skeptical about the proposal. 

The New Hanover County Manager’s office sent a letter to Owens on June 27 outlining its concerns. The letter states:

“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.”

County staff are worried the equipment maneuvers to avoid tires will extend the project’s timeline and decrease productivity, while also endangering species. If the project takes longer than expected, staff claim seasonal shoreline access will be negatively impacted by an influx of washed-up tires. 

According to Owens, he isn’t certain on the exact reason USACE refuses to go back to Masonboro Inlet, where sand has been “recycled” since 1965. He explained the perks to that site is its ability to accumulate sand with the help of a jetty, which provides plenty of sand for shore nourishment that erodes back into the inlet.

USACE Wilmington District Public Affairs Specialist Jed Cayton explained the change is due to a July 2021 reinterpretation of environmental regulations. 

The Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 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. Those projects are associated with natural resource loss, threats to human life, health, and property, and the expenditure of millions of tax dollars each year.

The change bars sand from within the protected system from being transported outside of it. Because Wrightsville Beach is not within the protected area, sand from the protected Masonboro Inlet may not be used for the project.

“CBRA encourages the conservation of hurricane prone, biologically rich coastal barriers by restricting federal expenditures and financial assistance that may encourage development, including most dredging actions, erosion control, and shoreline stabilization projects,” Cayton said. 

After the change, USACE started looking for other sites, landing on the current option. 

Owens said he shares the county’s concerns, saying “everything about the inlet makes sense,” but the town doesn’t have many choices beyond this plan.

“We are in a dire situation,” Owens said. “Most of us have never seen the beach in the condition that it’s in.” 

He elaborated that most of the beach’s berm is gone, limiting the space available for beachgoers, who are now setting up camp closer to the dunes. Vehicles are having a harder 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 this year.

“We tried to push that we needed to go back to the inlet, at least this one time,” Owens said. “We were basically shut down.”

Wrightsville Beach has had problems with securing a beach renourishment plan for the last few years, which has contributed to the recent poor conditions. 

The town, along with its Pleasure Island neighbor, had renourishment scheduled for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, but the corps did not include funding for them in its annual work plan. Carolina and Kure beaches did finally secure funding for renourishment in October. 

Last June, U.S. House Rep. David Rouzer questioned the corps’ decision in a House water resources and environment subcommittee hearing with Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, chief of engineers and commanding general of the USACE.

“Quite frankly, [that] came as a great surprise to everybody up and down the chain — at least those that I’ve spoken to,” Rouzer said in the hearing. 

Spellmon addressed his concern, explaining the abundance of 2019 floods required funding to be allocated to those rehabilitations instead of the sand replacements. He said he was working to reallocate funding from unused or more abundant sources to get assistance to Wrightsville Beach.

Around $14 million would be needed for the town’s renourishment, Spellmon said. 

The town received $11.6 million in federal funding in January, which was not enough to cover the project, so local USACE actors shored up more money to cover the project. 

According to Cayton, USACE wants a site that will support the project’s sand needs until 2036. 

“We really need to move forward and get some sand on the beach,” Owens said. “The beach is in that bad of a condition that we need to give it a shot.”

He added there are large areas of the sites untouched by tire debris — enough to get the sand the beach needs. 

“The corps has assured the town that they are going to do everything they can to mitigate getting into a tire field,” Owens said. “If they get into a tire field, they are going to do everything to remediate whatever happens out of that.”

On moving forward, Owens said everything is in the USACE’s hands now. While he has been asking the agency to explore other sites, he said there is not enough time to find an alternative. 

He estimated the corps wouldn’t get the go-ahead until late October, and the entire project wouldn’t be completed until April 2023. Once the plan is finalized, USACE said the public will be given the opportunity to offer their thoughts on the project and view a more detailed mitigation plan.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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