Editorial: $141 million in beach renourishment projects shows need for climate action

A view of Sandbridge before the sand replenishment program began, as seen Feb. 14, 2020. (Stephen M. Katz)

Posted on February 23, 2021

This year, the big beach replenishment project will be along the Outer Banks in North Carolina’s Dare County. Communities from Duck not far from the Virginia line south to Buxton on Hatteras Island are spending about $99 million to add sand to their ever-shrinking beaches.

In the summer of 2019, it was Virginia Beach’s turn. Beachgoers navigated around closed areas towered over by giant machinery, as a dredging company worked to raise the beach 9 feet above sea level and widen it to about 300 feet. The price tag was $22.6 million.

In the spring of 2020, a $20.3 million effort added sand to an eroding 5-mile stretch of Sandbridge Beach.

Even the last holdout on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Currituck County, has begun to study whether to start nourishing beaches. The Outer Banks section of Currituck includes Corolla, the Currituck Lighthouse, Carova Beach and wild mustangs popular with tour groups.

It would be great if these expensive projects created a stable beach that wouldn’t need similar shoring up for at least a couple of decades. But beach renourishment efforts can’t be viewed as construction projects yielding complete and more-or-less-permanent results. For communities that depend on their tourism economy and are in danger of being inundated or washed away, replenishing beaches has become routine maintenance, something that’s hardly finished before it must be done again.

Most of these same Outer Banks communities had beach widening projects in 2017. Virginia Beach renourished its beaches in 2013. Sandbridge had similar projects in 2003, 2007 and again in 2013.

Odds are, these Outer Banks and Hampton Roads communities will be spending even more money to pump sand onto their beaches again and again, and respites between rebuilding projects will become shorter.

Sometime in the last century, different choices might have been made. Perhaps building homes and other structures close to the ocean could have been prohibited. More beach areas could have been turned into parks or refuges, left to shift and change as nature dictated.

But that’s not how things developed in Hampton Roads or on much of the Outer Banks, and today’s reality is that these coastal communities must replenish the beaches both to keep their beach tourism economy going and to protect the places where people live and work from being flooded or destroyed.

The main alternative to frequent renourishing now is to decide if and when the situation is so bad that some structures should be moved or allowed to fall into the ocean. That’s not a choice many people are willing to consider. Orrin Pilkey, an emeritus professor of geology at Duke University, has long been saying that shifting beaches are a part of nature and advocating a move back from coastal areas. In the late 1980s, Pilkey recommended what many people thought would be impossible: moving the century-old Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 1,500 feet back from the shore before it fell into the Atlantic.

But not all of Virginia Beach or Sandbridge or the Outer Banks towns can be moved, of course. So we’re left with property owners and local, state and federal governments, as well as tourists who pay taxes, perennially chipping in for expensive stop-gap projects.

There is one important thing we can do, and the sooner, the better: Get more serious about fighting climate change. Global warming contributes to rising sea levels and more erosion and flooding. Climate change also results in more frequent and stronger hurricanes, which means more powerful storm surges washing over roads and buildings.

We can’t go back to the last century, but there are important choices we can make now. We can agree to tough measures to cut carbon emissions and move our economy away from its dependence on polluting fossil fuels. We can adopt greener measures in our homes, our transportation and our communities. We can deal aggressively with climate change as a threat to our future, especially here at the edge of the ocean.


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