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Money spent replenishing Jersey Shore’s disappearing beaches to hit a record $3B

Sand replenishment taking place in Ocean City, New Jersey, in January 2023

Posted on November 7, 2023

Sand dollars of a different variety keep washing in and out of the surf at the Jersey Shore.

This fall and winter, work is taking place on about $52 million in beach replenishment across five towns along New Jersey’s coastline.

Between work done at the start of the year and some recently completed this summer, New Jersey has reached $2.98 billion spent on sand replenishment since some of the state’s earliest projects began in 1936. With the latest round of projects, that puts the state on track to hit more than $3 billion in spending.

So far, more than 240 million cubic yards of sand have been poured across the New Jersey coast, according to new figures from Western Carolina University, which maintains a database that was updated this week to reflect the latest “episodes” or completed projects. The total money spent has been adjusted for inflation.

The practice of replenishment, also called beach nourishment, is a strategy that guarantees wide beaches with plentiful dunes and is one that dates back nearly a century. State and federal officials emphasize that no tactic has been more effective at affordably combating beach erosion, preventing strong waves from damaging shore property and ensuring beaches — instead of homes — take the brunt of major storms like Hurricane Sandy.

An NJ Advance Media report, “The Disappearing Beach,” examined the increasing dependency and mounting cost of beach replenishment along the Jersey Shore — and whether it was time to consider alternatives.

Officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say it turns to the strategy of sand replenishment after careful and complex analysis that can take years. Taxpayers cover the costs of the projects at a split that can depend on the replenishment but typically breaks down to 65% in federal tax money, and the remaining 35% divided between the state and municipality.

Some critics like the Surfrider Foundation claim replenishment is wasteful of sand resources, will ultimately not be cost-effective and only spurs more shore development. Critics also say it has been relied upon so much that it’s blotted out other coastal protective steps like heavily investing in living shorelines and strategically retreating from some parts of the shore.

“In my opinion, it’s kind of a fool’s errand. You put the sand down, the next nor’easter that comes washes it away. You saw that last year all along the coast … right after the last sand replenishment up on the north end of Monmouth County, there was a nor’easter a few weeks later,” said Don Greenberg, the at-large chair for the Jersey Shore chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

“It’s not replenishment,” Greenberg added. “You’re just dumping sand on the beach. It’s going to take some political will to spend dollars for other resiliency solutions.”

After visiting a Toms River beach in Ocean County at the end of September, officials there said more than $300,000 may be needed again from township coffers to make up for a lost dune post-Tropical Storm Ophelia. Due to a lack of federal sand replenishment likely until 2025, North Wildwood is also taking a financial hit to bolster its beach defenses.

Enough to fill 73,000 Olympic-sized pools

According to an analysis by Andrea Welker, dean of The College of New Jersey’s School of Engineering, more than 240 million cubic yards of sand poured on our coast in the past 87 years is enough to fill more than 73,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, 101 Las Vegas Spheres, 101 MetLife Stadiums, 175 Empire State Buildings and more than 24 million dump trucks.

New Jersey’s latest budget, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in June, also included a record-setting $50 million for the Shore Protection Fund. Money from that fund is largely dedicated to replenishing beaches with sand, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Data from Western Carolina University, between 1936 and 2023, showed Absecon Island in Atlantic City is among the areas that have experienced the most replenishment. The area saw 23 sand replenishment projects at a total cost of about $78 million. The university’s data, officials said, is somewhat incomplete as not all project work in all locations is included.

The nonprofit American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which maintains its own database, noted earlier this year that New Jersey possibly pumped more sand onto its beaches beyond the post-1935 data outlined by Western Carolina University.

Specific data on replenishment figures from 1923 (when beach nourishment began in the U.S. with a project in Coney Island, New York according to the ASBPA) to 1936 was not available from the association or Western Carolina University. Still, federal officials said the bulk of replenishment projects have taken place after Hurricane Sandy and has only increased.

In June, experts highlighted that New Jersey had poured more sand onto its beaches — per foot of shoreline — than any other state (even more than California and Florida which have hundreds of miles of additional coast).

Andy Coburn, associate director for Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, said this week it was unclear if the Garden State still held that title as additional data needs to be added to the nourishment map — including figures for Florida and Louisiana.

Asked about his impressions of New Jersey pumping as much sand as it has so far, Coburn said: “After studying beach nourishment for over 20 years, very little surprises me.”

“The true reason why nourishment is done is because we’ve placed so much static economic development behind dynamic beaches, thereby preventing them from migrating landward as sea level rises,” Coburn said previously. “In other words, the fundamental problem has little to do with erosion and everything to do with money and development.”

Does it work?

When a beach may be in need of sand, Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District, said the agency conducts feasibility studies that delve into how various scenarios could play out in project areas.

That includes considering doing nothing at all, building flood walls, adding offshore breakwaters, as well as sand replenishment with and without a dune.

State and federal officials have said in the past that hard structures could exacerbate beach erosion in parts of the Jersey Shore.

“(Beachfill) typically with a dune emerged as the most cost-effective method to reduce risk for much of the developed shoreline,” Rochette said.

“In terms of benefits and measurements,” Rochette continued, “we do conduct annual monitoring of our projects which includes surveying the beaches in specific locations to see how they are holding up and better understand erosion and accretion trends within project areas.”

Sand is pumped onto the beach at the area formerly known as ‘The Pit’ in the West End section of Long Branch in June 2014Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger

However, Ross Kushner, a Sea Bright resident who has long criticized wide-spanning sand replenishment, said impacts to the environment and shore species have not been thoroughly investigated and large-scale investments into alternatives have been too few and far between. He’s also fought for more transparency from project managers on how the work is done and money is spent.

“These projects are failing. I mean, you end up with sand cliffs, you end up with sinkholes, you end up with dangerous rip currents,” Kushner said while fishing in Spring Lake on Thursday afternoon. “They actually did a project, the Army Corps of Engineers, where they constructed what they called a submerged berm (in Harvey Cedars) and it actually worked pretty well.”

Greenberg, of the Surfrider Foundation, also pointed to Harvey Cedars as evidence of a successful project that helped ensure sand placement lasted longer.

Yet, officials at the Army Corps have disputed claims that replenishment is a failing strategy or environmental impacts are not analyzed. The agency also noted that in some cases sand placement is designed to shift on the shore amid harsh weather and high tides.

So far, New Jersey has only signaled it will stick to abundant and consistent sand replenishment.

Cape May in September got the green light to start work on dredging and placing 517,000 cubic yards of sand, shortly after in October Oakwood Beach in Elsinboro Township got the OK to drop more than 57,000 tons of sand there starting in the next few months and at the end of October a new contract was awarded for three towns to dredge and pump another 1.3 million cubic yards of sand. Just those three projects will cost more than $52 million.


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