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Wrightsville Beach prepares to weather another hurricane season as it waits for sand

Posted on January 16, 2023

Wrightsville Beach officials and residents are crossing their fingers and hoping the New Hanover County beach town’s eroded beach can make it through one more hurricane season before it gets a fresh injection of sand.

“We think we’ll be good, but it could be dicey in places,” said Town Manager Tim Owens.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The well-heeled town in Southeastern North Carolina was supposed to have a beach nourishment project last winter. Pretty much since the mid-1960s the town has seen a fresh injection of sand every three years.

That winter 2021-22 planned nourishment, however, began to fall apart earlier that year when funding for the work − along with the beach nourishments planned for Carolina and Kure beaches − wasn’t included in the Army Corps of Engineers’ work plan. That issue was eventually ironed out, at least for the Pleasure Island projects.

But a new problem has kept the dredges for Wrightsville Beach’s proposed nourishment stuck in harbor.

Why was the project delayed?

For decades, Wrightsville Beach has used sand dredged from Masonboro Inlet on the island’s southern end to nourish its beach. This was despite the area classified as within a federally designated Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) zone.

The purpose of CBRA is to discourage development by prohibiting the expenditure of federal dollars on projects in hazardous coastal areas. That includes money for infrastructure and road projects, participation in the National Flood Insurance Program, and shoreline stabilization projects – including taking sand from inside CBRA areas for beach nourishment projects outside of them.

But access to that sand source by Wrightsville Beach was shut down by the federal government in summer 2021. The U.S. Department of the Interior, facing a lawsuit from the Audubon Society, doubled down on its policy of not allowing sand from within CBRA zones to be used for beach nourishment.

That has sent the Army Corps of Engineers looking for a new offshore sand source.

OK, but how could Carolina/Kure Beach projects move forward?

Good question. The Pleasure Island nourishments nearly fell into the same trap, since they historically draw some of its sand from Carolina Beach Inlet, which is also a CBRA zone.

But a nearby offshore borrow site of compatible sand had previously been identified and used for previous nourishments, allowing the corps to swiftly pivot to that borrow site for the projects. The towns’ nourishments wrapped up last spring, although the Kure Beach part of the work did extend a few weeks into the post-May period usually off limits for sand-pumping projects due to nesting sea turtles and shorebirds.

What happens now?

Officials are focusing on a potential borrow site roughly 3 miles offshore for Wrightsville Beach’s nourishment project.

But while the sand appears compatible, it also is fouled by up to 300,000 tires and other foreign items used to build an artificial reef years ago.

Obviously, pumping rubber and other material onto the beach is a non-starter − never mind the damage it could cause to the equipment used to pump the sand.

Corps officials have said they believe they can find enough sand, probably around 800,000 cubic yards, while avoiding the tires and other debris used in the artificial reefs. Dave Connolly, spokesman with the corps’ Wilmington district, said the agency is working to get the necessary environmental approvals to pump sand from the offshore site.

But the move offshore means higher costs and a more complex project that just using sand from Masonboro Inlet, like Wrightsville Beach has used for decades, said Layton Bedsole, New Hanover County’s shore protection coordinator.

“Going offshore has complicated things immensely,” Owens said.

So when will the new sand hit Wrightsville?

Connolly said the corps, assuming environmental and other regulatory approvals can be secured, is aiming for awarding a contract for the work in the early fourth quarter of this year. That then would see the nourishment take place during the winter 2022-23 dredging window.

Can the town hold out until then, especially as scientists warn that beach communities face increasing pressures from tropical weather systems and rising seas due to changes brought on by climate change?

Owens said most of the beach should be fine.

“Where we are having problems it’s emergency vehicles getting up and down the beach and water pushing into some of our dune areas,” he said, adding that the island’s midsection roughly between the town’s two piers is generally where the beach is showing the most wear and tear.

A sliver of positive news associated with the delay is that the federal government appears poised to pick up the tab for the upcoming nourishment − or at a minimum the additional costs for moving the borrow site offshore. The cost of federal beach projects is usually shared between the federal government and local governments, with Washington picking up two-thirds of the cost.

But that is doing little to alleviate some of the frustrations local officials are feeling.

“There are parts of Wrightsville Beach that are desperately in need of maintenance,” Bedsole said. “We’re literally one storm, one ugly storm away from potentially having a very bad situation out there.”


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