Restoring Delaware beaches: Costly, but necessary?

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From left, Gov. Jack Markell, from left, announced his plan to request $2.5 million in federal disaster relief after touring storm damage to Bethany Beach with Tony Pratt, DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Management administrator, and DNREC Secretary David Small in February. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — The state and federal governments have spent about $34 million and $131 million, respectively, to restore beaches along Delaware’s coast with much of the work coming in the past decade.

That spending, experts say, is not only critical to protect infrastructure and towns. It also helps tourism that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

But is it a wise investment? Some argue it’s not.

Beach replenishment is the practice of rebuilding beaches and dunes using sand taken from offshore or another site. Most of the work is handled by the Army Corps of Engineers, with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control helping oversee the projects.

Sand can be ground off the bottom of the ocean floor and pumped through long pipes onto the beach. Or it can be dug up by a dredger and stored in the ship’s hold before being dumped on the beach.

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An aerial view of part of the southern Delaware baches following January’s winter strom. Shown here is the Lewes coastline, one of five Delaware areas designated for beach repair. (Submitted photo/U.S. Rep. John C. Carney Jr. Office)

Designers work to identify the sand most similar to that currently found on the site. Engineers prefer not to mix sand made up of countless shell fragments and sand from a marsh, for instance.

“Once you know how much sand is needed to build the beach up initially and have a dune and a beach with it, then you find offshore sand sources that are not environmentally damaging to remove — or at least the lowest possible environmentally damaging to remove,” said Tony Pratt, DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Management administrator.

He compares it to repainting a house every five or so years — a necessary bit of maintenance to protect it from the elements.

Delaware has five designated areas for beach repair: Rehoboth, Dewey, Bethany and South Bethany beaches and Lewes, Fenwick Island and Indian River Inlet.

Each of the four beaches has a berm of at least 100 feet wide and dunes at least 13 feet high, while Indian River Inlet takes 100,000 cubic yards of sand per year, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. More money has gone to the Rehoboth-Dewey area than any of the other four sites.

In theory, beaches are repaired on a regular basis and after major storms, but funding makes that less certain.

Wide beaches and dunes help slow down waves during severe storms, like the one that hit the East Coast in January. That storm ripped apart many of the dunes and beaches in Delaware, but the sandy blockades largely did their job, protecting boardwalks, roads and buildings.

“Water got over in a few places but didn’t create hardship on infrastructure,” Mr. Pratt said.

But despite the seeming importance of beach renourishment, some argue it can be harmful and believe the state should move toward a different way of thinking.

‘A Band-Aid’

University of Delaware oceanography professor Art Trembanis rejects many of the common arguments made about the practice.

“At its fundamental level, I mean, it’s not a cure of the underlying cause, it’s a Band-Aid,” Dr. Trembanis said.

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The Bethany Beach coast area as seen from the air in January. It is one of the five designated areas for beach repair in Delaware.

Moving sediment temporarily can disrupt ecosystems and also can change beaches if the sand used is different from the kind already on the beach. Dr. Trembanis said he has seen beaches change color, become rougher and increase in steepness due to replenishment.

His concerns also go behind the purely environmental and toward a realm familiar to many: financial.

The cost, Dr. Trembanis said, is an added burden and one of the literal prices of building so close to the ocean. While it may make for a spectacular view, having a house right on the edge of the beach also raises serious concerns.

A community built in an area prone to forest fires takes on known risks, he said, comparing such a place to a beachfront town.

Perhaps it’s arrogance or determination to rule over nature that leads to building bigger and grander things despite increased risk.

“Maybe in the American psyche we don’t retreat,” he said. “We’re going to advance. The mere suggestion that we would retreat from something is also an anathema.”

John Doerfler, chairman of the nonprofit Delaware Surfrider Foundation, shares several viewpoints with Dr. Trembanis. Taxpayers have little opportunity to provide their thoughts on the process, he said.

Compounding matters is the fact beach replenishment is underfunded, according to experts, meaning Delaware is battling other states for limited financial resources. Both Rehoboth Beach and Bethany Beach are past the scheduled three-year cycle for new sand to be pumped on them, Mr. Pratt said.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., referenced the funding difficulties and the competition Wednesday when speaking on the Senate floor to the head of the U.S. Army’s Civil Works division.

“We are grateful for previous investment in beach nourishment that protected those beaches, but most of what had been provided in recent years was torn away and that’s left a lot of our coastal communities and their infrastructure exposed,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we can work together to find resources; the president’s budget to my disappointment did not include funding for Bethany Beach or South Bethany Beach.”

The federal government has been limiting its focus on replenishment for decades, putting greater emphasis on the states, Dr. Trembanis said.

Now, he said, is the right time to “let nature take its course,” allowing coastlines to be naturally restored. Although not done as fast or in exactly the same way as when directed with human hands, nature is resilient.

One does not have to look far, in fact, to see that. The Virginia portion of the Delmarva Peninsula is largely undeveloped, driven not by man but by nature, Dr. Trembanis said.

Coastlines change over time, and rather than fighting to hold the ocean where it currently is, he believes Delaware should go with the flow. Such a viewpoint may be less grand, but it is also cheaper and safer, he argues.

“I think we’ve always had this assumption that we can engineer our way out of problems, and certainly we can, but it comes at a great cost,” he said.

‘A huge industry’

The replenishment does, however, protect towns and cities. While renourishing beaches may be expensive, halting the practice also could be problematic. Many people would be unwilling to surrender their oceanside homes and abandon their communities to wind and waves.

And though the Corps of Engineers is not allowed to consider any factors outside of safety concerns and damage to infrastructure, Sussex

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Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., toured the restored Fowler Beach in November 2015. Fowler Beach at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge had been swallowed by the Delaware Bay. (Delaware State News file photo/Dave Chambers)

County’s economy is in many ways driven by its beaches. Tourism brought in $1.8 billion to Sussex County in 2014, the majority of which came from the beaches, according to the Delaware Tourism Office.

Those sandy stretches, sometimes seen as a hidden gem, are a point of pride as well. The nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council reported the state’s beaches had the cleanest water quality in the country in 2013.

If the state had not worked to restore the beaches, Rehoboth Beach boardwalk would be separated from the water by just a few feet of sand — or none at all, Mr. Pratt said.

“It’s because of the tourism and the mass amount of money that’s made, jobs that are held, stores that are open,” he said. “It’s just such a huge industry in Delaware.”

And yet, Dr. Trembanis believes the tourism argument is not a good one.

Tax dollars used to aid beach communities could be directed toward building an amusement park in an inland town instead, he said.

The state should have a serious discussion about at least not building any closer to the ocean, he said.

“When we try to live too closely on and intercede in the natural process we just set ourselves up for this continued kind of thing,” he said.

Mr. Doerfler is also in favor of considering other options. State leaders, such as lawmakers, should work to develop a different, more cost-effective plan that still can keep the tourism industry viable.

“When do we come up with a bigger template for Delaware where we’re not needlessly dumping money into these projects that are just good for one storm?” he asked.

Like Dr. Trembanis, he is in favor of a “managed retreat” or at least imposing restrictions on where structures can be built.

Beach replenishment could be seen in action on a blustery Friday back in November, when a group of about 20 people toured an ongoing project at Fowler Beach. Part of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, the beach had been swallowed up by the Delaware Bay.

A dredging pipe running offshore brought sand onto the beach, which was expected to require about 1.2 million to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand in all. A few explosive shells have been sucked up and spit out on land during the course of the project, although, fortunately for everyone involved, none were live.

The beach was designed to be wide, not high, allowing waves to rush up onto the beach and into the marshes behind it.

That’s a luxury not afforded to planners working on beaches by expensive oceanside homes, however.

For them, dunes are the best option, said Steve Rochette, a spokesman with the Philadelphia District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The dune is designed to be sacrificial in nature to take the brunt of the energy during the storm,” he said.

Currently, the Corps of Engineers is examining the damage from the January storm to see if Delaware’s beaches are eligible for emergency funding.

Dr. Trembanis thinks the movement toward reducing beach replenishment is growing, and he is hopeful state and federal officials can consider making changes with a greater emphasis on the long-term future.

“Don’t let development go, then figure out the solution after the fact,” he said.

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