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Federal agencies spend millions every year replacing sand on beaches. Some experts say it’s a waste of tax money.

Posted on June 26, 2024

The sound of a three-mile-long pipe pumping 100 dump trucks worth of sand onto the coastline filled the air for two and a half months in the town of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina in early 2024.

It was part of a beach nourishment project, meant to replenish and widen beaches lost to erosion or storms. Paid for with federal tax dollars and completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the project in Wrightsville Beach cost around $15 million and is re-done approximately every four years.

“I do believe that beach re-nourishment is a necessity,” said Jeff DeGroote, a lifelong Wrightsville Beach resident who owns a surf shop/coffee house a block away from the water.

His livelihood depends on the beach, so it also depends on keeping the beach maintained through nourishment projects.

The surf shop owned by life-long Wrightsville Beach resident Jeff DeGroote.

“There is a disadvantage with…what we’re doing here. The main disadvantage is cost, right? But the advantages outweigh the disadvantages,” DeGroote said.

But some experts believe the taxpayer money used for beach nourishment projects could be better spent elsewhere.

Data from the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University shows more than 2,500 beach nourishment projects have cost more than $10 billion over the last century, or nearly $16 billion adjusted for inflation using 2022 dollars.

Unsurprisingly, the number and cost of projects tends to increase in years where there are major storms.

In 2013, there were 75 projects, more than any other year since 1923, the first year available in WCU’s data. That’s the same year hurricanes Humberto and Ingrid, along with 11 other tropical storms, hit the Atlantic coast. Winter storm Nemo also hit the east coast that year.

The year with the largest cost was 2014, the year following the storms. That year totaled about $925 million, adjusted for inflation in 2022 dollars.

Beach nourishment projects by year

Since 1923, there has been a total of about 2,500 beach nourishment projects. So far, 27 have taken place this year.

More than three quarters of all the projects included in WCU’s database and analyzed by CBS News were repeat projects.

For example, since 1939 there have been 27 beach nourishment projects on Wrightsville Beach alone, costing about $107 million in 2022 dollars, according to WCU’s data as of June 2024.

That averages out to about one project every three years. Most of these projects, both on Wrightsville Beach and nationwide, are federally funded.

Funding sources for nourishment projects

But, is it worth it?

Joe Vietri, the director of the National Planning Center for Coastal and Storm Risk Management at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yes.

The return on the investment could be substantial, he said. That’s because these projects are about coastal risk management.

“That’s the goal here, to provide a buffer between the ocean and the community,” Vietri said, referencing research by the USACE after Hurricane Sandy showing how beaches reduced damages and provided a buffer between the ocean and communities.

Highlighting the importance of a coastal defense system, he added, “Where you had a stable, well-maintained beach, berm, and dune system, the damages were extremely less than where you did not. And I mean dramatically so.”

Ultimately, Congress must approve all federally funded beach renourishment projects. Which, some experts say, can save money in the long run.”When a storm hits, a hurricane hits, the federal government pays a lot of money to come in and fix things,” said Bob Keistler, a civil works project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Wilmington District.To address this issue more efficiently, Keistler emphasized the importance of proactive measures.”This is kind of like an insurance policy, a proactive way that we’re out in front of storms at a much less cost today, provide protection so when the hurricane comes, there’s much less damage,” Keistler said.

Wrightsville Beach: Before vs. Now

Compare the satellite imagery of Crystal Pier at Wrightsville Beach from October 2016 with the beach nourishment activity in February 2024 using the slider below.

Andy Coburn, the associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, doesn’t dispute the science behind nourishment. But he has concerns about these projects from a public policy perspective.

“Who pays? Who benefits? How much? What else can we do? Is there something unique that we haven’t thought of that we can implement?” Coburn said.

Coburn said part of the cost-benefit analysis no one tends to think about is what happens if the beach starts to wash away due to other factors outside of storms like natural erosion and sea level rise from climate change.

“Over time, it always washes away, right? So how do we consider that? Is that a benefit? Is that a cost? How do we analyze that? Should we be doing that? These are the questions that we want to ask that aren’t being asked right now,” he said.

While some studies have found that beach nourishment could be a viable mitigation strategy for climate change, some scientists have developed research showing that it may not be the best long-term solution.Vietri doesn’t deny that. As sea levels rise due to climate change and more projects are necessary, the return on investment may not be as high.”I see a future where possibly a lot of the areas that we’re currently working in now…won’t be possible because of rising sea levels,” he said. “Right now, the economics [are] in favor of what we’re doing. That won’t always be the case.”Over the past several decades, the increase in the total number of beach nourishment projects has caused a rising price tag. Adjusted for inflation in 2022 dollars, average yearly spending on beach nourishment projects in the 1950s totaled just under $30 million.

By the 2010s spending had risen to an average of about $616 million, 20 times the amount from the 1950s. So far this decade, spending has averaged about $490 million per year.

Average yearly beach nourishment spending by decade

“There’s absolutely agreement among coastal scientists that global warming and sea level rise will absolutely make nourishment more expensive,” Coburn said.

He said he would not be surprised if totals doubled between 2024 and 2050.

“Over time, when that sand starts going away and communities and the government have to help find new sand, that’s going to increase the cost even more,” Coburn said.

Coburn proposed a solution that would require beachfront property owners, who he believes benefit the most from beach nourishment projects, to cover a larger portion of the costs.

But he also mentioned a process called “strategic retreat,” where people move out of high-risk areas.

“Strategic retreat will remove properties that are vulnerable to coastal processes before they get damaged,” Coburn said. “In theory, it’s very easy. In practice, how do you do that? We don’t really know, because no one’s doing it.”

Nourishment projects across the U.S.

The map below shows the locations of beach nourishment projects since 1923. Each circle represents a project location, with its size corresponding to the total cost accumulated over the years. Hover over or click on a circle for more details.

Vietri, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said there are other solutions to homes and buildings themselves that could help mitigate risks outside of beach nourishment, like elevating houses.

But there are examples of strategic retreat being an option. Vietri gave an example on Long Island.

“They sit in the middle of a wetland…So rather than go spend tens of millions of dollars protecting, you know, maybe a hundred or so houses, it just made more sense there to just look at possibly buying them out.”

But, Vietri said, that’s a tough sell.

“It’s sort of a program that you have to work with the state, local officials, and the community, as well as the people who own those homes. But in this case, they were just getting so wet so often, it just became apparent, look, we got to do something. Make us an offer, and we’ll move on. So, we’re doing more and more of that these days,” Vietri said.


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