Beach replenishment is all that’s standing between North Carolina and storms

Coastal communities are settling for short-term fixes instead of developing master plans.

Workers position pipe to transport sand excavated from the Atlantic Ocean floor to the beach in Duck, North Carolina. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
Workers position pipe to transport sand excavated from the Atlantic Ocean floor to the beach in Duck, North Carolina. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

Millions of people visit North Carolina’s beaches each year, generating billions of dollars in revenue for the local economies. The natural beauty of North Carolina’s coastline, from the Outer Banks to the small towns south of Wilmington, is one of the top reasons for the popularity of the state’s beaches.

Over the decades, though, humans have played a major role in ensuring visitors get to enjoy the sand and the waves along North Carolina’s coast. Many of the state’s beaches, especially in the lowest-lying coastal areas, are artificially maintained by engineering techniques, primarily through a practice called beach nourishment or replenishment.

With beach erosion and sea level rise, communities along the state’s coast view these preservation methods — hauling in large amounts of sand to build up the dunes or widen the beach— as vital to sustaining their tourism economies.

Nags Head, located on the state’s Outer Banks, paid millions of dollars a few years ago to build up its coastline and is preparing to repeat the expensive process in the next couple years.

“We were losing infrastructure. We were losing streets. We were losing power lines, and we were losing water lines. We were losing homes,” Cliff Ogburn, Nags Head town manager, told WNCT9. “Our thriving economic engine is tourism. People come here because of the beach, and, just like any maintenance, we needed to maintain our beach so we could keep our tourism viable and thriving.”

The frequency of the replenishment programs on the Outer Banks — barrier islands off the state’s coast — will depend on how often the coast gets slammed by major storms. But at some point later this century, experts predict these programs will no longer be able to save the lowest-lying portions of the state’s coast.

Due to climate change, sea levels are expected to rise between one and two meters over the next 100 years. “The need for beach nourishment will accelerate rapidly over the next several decades to the point where, in most places along North Carolina’s coast, it will no longer be feasible as a solution,” Michael Orbach, professor emeritus of marine affairs and policy at Duke University, told ThinkProgress.

Other adaptation and mitigation measures will need to be explored. For thousands of years, sea levels remained constant. According to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, though, the sea level has been rising since 1900 and it continues to rise faster each year. This sea level rise “highlights the importance and urgency of mitigating climate change and formulating coastal adaptation plans to mitigate the impacts of ongoing sea level rise,” the study says.

Once beach replenishment programs lose their value against rising sea levels, residents of North Carolina and other coastal states will likely see the “New Jerseyization” of their coastal communities, Orbach said. Thirty years ago, North Carolina took a progressive approach to protecting its coast. The state limited the number of hard structures, including beach-damaging seawalls, and required setback lines controlling shorefront development.

Sand pumped from an offshore ship flows from a pipe on the beach in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, New Jersey, one of the hardest-hit spots by Superstorm Sandy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wayne Parry
Sand pumped from an offshore ship flows from a pipe on the beach in the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, New Jersey, one of the hardest-hit spots by Superstorm Sandy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Wayne Parry

But as state rules became less rigid, the coastal communities saw an increase in economic activity. And now they are willing to try various methods to protect that economic wealth. In the next few decades, the New Jersey method of using techniques such as building large bulkheads, rock groins, and inlet jetties to protect its coast is expected to become the norm in North Carolina and other states that generate huge amounts of revenue from their ocean economies.

Eventually, most low-lying coastal areas will have to think of some planned retreat.

As a short-term fix, these methods may prove useful. But using hard structures to manage sea level rise won’t help in the long term. “Putting in a wall won’t solve the problem because the water will simply go under and around it,” Orbach said. “Eventually, most low-lying coastal areas will have to think of some planned retreat.”

Beach replenishment becomes less effective with greater rates of sea level rise, but it is still the only viable short-term option, said Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, a nonprofit group based in Norfolk, Virginia. “Longer-term options for inhabited barrier islands involve a strategic retreat,” he said.

Right now, on the barriers islands along the Atlantic Coast, from New Jersey to Florida, “there is no retreat strategy being entertained, so we are pretty much left with incremental and increasingly expensive options like replenishment,” Stiles said.

In the United States, the majority of beach replenishment projects have occurred in Florida. But due to its status as a state that scientists predict will be hit the hardest by climate change, Florida is facing more pressing issues than nourishing its beaches.

Mass retreat from coastal areas, especially in south Florida, could become the only option later this century. In the meantime, the region’s population density will make it extremely difficult to find equitable plans to protect residents at all income levels from future storms and sea level rise.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts sea levels will rise as much as three feet in Miami by 2060. By the end of the century, approximately 934,000 existing Florida properties, worth more than $400 billion, are at risk of being submerged, Bloomberg reported in April.

“Because of the importance of these coastal properties to the economies, states like Florida and North Carolina have come in with state-subsidized insurance pools for this risky coastal property,” Orbach explained. “If there were another Hurricane Andrew in Florida that hit any of the major metropolitan areas, the state of Florida would be broke because the state is on the hook now for all the insurance of the coastal property.”

The future looks even bleaker for south Louisiana, a region that is seeing worse impacts from climate change than south Florida. Orbach served for two years on the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s Science and Engineering Board that oversaw the development of the state’s coastal master plan. “By their own scientific estimates, there is no south Louisiana anymore after 50 years, no matter who tries to put jetties there because it will simply be inundated. It’s too low,” he said.

Oil and gas companies, some of the leading climate change culprits, declined to take part in the coastal plan, even though it’s a dominant industry in south Louisiana. “Oil and gas infrastructure is not discussed in the 50-year plan for coastal Louisiana because the industry said, ‘We’ll deal with it. Don’t worry about us,’” Orbach said. “The ground is sinking along with the sea level rising in south Louisiana, partly due to the oil being taken out of the ground.”

A similar nonchalance about climate change exists among real estate developers in North Carolina. “I know a lot of developers who people tend to call climate science deniers, and they are smart people. They don’t deny it. They realize that we don’t have a clue what we’re going to do about it,” Orbach said. “And their answer for now is let’s not talk about it, which to me is not the right answer.”

State politicians in North Carolina also have hesitated to take sea level predictions seriously. Five years ago, the Science Panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commissioner presented a report that outlined the possibility that sea levels along the coast could rise as much as 39 inches over the next 100 years. Given the negative reaction to the report from real estate developers and the business community, the state General Assembly passed a law forbidding communities from using the report’s findings to pass new rules.

In 2015, the scientists on the panel produced a new report that still predicted that sea levels would rise. But since the report only looked 30 years out, the amount of rise was not anywhere near the levels predicted in the first report. The changes made it much more acceptable to the people who fought against the original, according to a WUNC report.

Given the anticipated sea-level rise rate, experts believe the state should at least be looking ahead to the end of the century, not just 30 years out.

Workers transport pipes used for beach replenishment in Duck, North Carolina. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress
Workers transport pipes used for beach replenishment in Duck, North Carolina. CREDIT: Mark Hand/ThinkProgress

As state officials debate the long-term impacts of climate change, local communities are taking short-term measures to protect their beaches. The northern portion of the state’s Outer Banks is currently undergoing beach replenishment where sand is excavated from the ocean floor about two miles off the coast and then pumped through pipelines onto the beaches. A portion of the $38.5 million beach replenishment project will be paid by the local county. The towns will cover the rest primarily from special tax districts along the oceanfront.

Other towns in the southern part of the state have received federal funding under a 50-year program to replenish the sands on their beaches. But some of these programs, which began in the 1960s, are expiring and the federal government isn’t showing as much interest in helping coastal communities.

“Aside from protecting federal navigation projects or military bases, there is not a clear federal interest in a lot of beach nourishment, especially in relatively rural, leisure tourism areas like North Carolina,” Orbach said.

The Trump administration also is hoping to cut federal program that have helped coastal communities deal with public health and beach erosion issues. The president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 would cut funding for the BEACH Act Grant Program under which the EPA provides grants to states and local governments to protect people from contaminated water at coastal beaches.

Trump also wants to eliminate the Sea Grant program, which provides funding to help coastal communities protect their shorelines. Orbach, who serves on the national advisory board for the Sea Grant program, said the group is “lobbying hard” to persuade Congress to leave funding for the program in the FY18 budget.

In North Carolina, the Sea Grant program pays an expert who advises communities on beach replenishment programs and offers assessments of whether they will need “to look at alternatives like retreat or raising houses up on pilings,” Orbach said.

Aside from the threat of sea level rise, beach replenishment programs face other obstacles. Finding a source with sufficient quantities and good-quality sand can be challenging. “Frankly, there’s not enough sand,” Orbach said. “Everybody thinks the ocean bottom is all full of sand. Well, it isn’t.”

Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, is disappointed that developers continue to build beachfront buildings along the North Carolina coast, despite the region’s vulnerability to sea-level rise. And North Carolina officials, instead of putting in plans to address the growing threat of rising sea levels, are encouraging such coastal construction, Pilkey wrote in a June 3 op-ed for The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“We are whittling away at our once pioneering regulations against hard stabilization,” Pilkey said. “Fundamentally we are developing our coast in a manner suitable for the good old days when sea-level rise wasn’t in the tea leaves.”