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Costly, Inconvenient Beach Fill Still Best Choice for Islands

Posted on September 9, 2015

There are lots of reasons to dislike beach replenishment. It is expensive – about $70 million a year in New Jersey. It needs to be redone every several years. It displaces and annoys beach visitors, who are among its primary beneficiaries.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the design and execution of most beach-fill projects, said people frequently have asked this year why such work has to be done in summer. The corps’ Philadelphia District commander recently answered, saying the timing is determined by: federal funding, securing the needed property rights, project sizes that require 10 months of work, availability of dredging equipment and the urgency to complete projects that help protect communities from storm damage.

Those are convincing arguments, especially since some of those measures are essential to holding down beach-replenishment costs. The Army Corps also tries to lessen the impact on beach visitors, closing no more than 1,000 feet of beach at a time so they never have to go more than a block or two to reach unencumbered sand.

Lt. Col. Michael Bliss also had some good news – that the Long Beach Island project has placed 4.7 million of the planned 8 million cubic yards of sand, and that the Ocean City-to-Sea Isle City project has nearly finished.

The latter project provides an example of the expense of beach fill – $58 million – and its inherent impermanence. The sand had barely settled on the beaches when people noticed it immediately eroding and started worrying. Local municipal engineers explained that’s the plan, replacing eroded sand with new sand that also will erode and need to be replaced.

The cost of this perpetual beach maintenance is the biggest worry for state officials, since it has been increasing and the federal government has been looking to reduce its contribution. From 1987 to 1997, about 40 million cubic yards of sand were placed on N.J. beaches at a cost of about $250 million. In the following decade, it cost about $700 million to pump 50 million cubic yards.

People might assume there has to be a better way, especially if they aren’t familiar with the past century’s efforts at maintaining beaches and protecting shore communities. There isn’t. In the words of the state Department of Environmental Protection, “alternative approaches to protecting the shore are not apparent.”

The state has tried jetties, groins, seawalls, bulkheads and revetments, and they “frequently produced results that were ineffective, and in some cases, counterproductive.” The classic example is the Coast Guard jetty that cut off sand to Cape May, washing a whole community into the sea while adding unneeded sand onto the Wildwood beach.

Nothing can stop the ocean, which wants to move barrier islands around. Once people put buildings on the islands, they committed society to either spending millions on beach fill or letting the ocean destroy billions in property.

Replenishing beaches on a regular basis is the best option for keeping the islands and beaches people love – and will remain so until the science of coastal dynamics comes up with a better alternative.

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