Itís easy to take the beach for granted. We swim, we surf, we soak up the sun and we pay little mind to why the beach is here. But what if it werenít? What if that nice, wide strand of golden sand simply washed away over time?
Thatís the question ó and the battle ó faced by a coalition of local, state and federal elected officials, environmentalists and engineers as they work to maintain the coastal environment to which thousands of residents and millions of visitors have become accustomed.
The problem is simple: The beach does simply wash away over time. Currents along the shoreline carry the sand southward, depositing it in inlet systems with the ebb tide. Noríeasters and hurricanes carve sharp cliffs into the beach, and the biggest storms can even wash over low-lying barrier islands, depositing sand from the beach on the islandís backside.
"Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach in New Hanover County are barrier island beaches, and those are accumulations of sand that have a natural tendency to move," says environmental engineer Rick Catlin, past chairman of the North Carolina Beach, Inlet and Waterway Association (NCBIWA). "If theyíre in a natural condition and are overwashed in a storm, then the sand moves toward the mainland, and the barrier island tends to migrate toward land. Thatís the natural erosion process. The other thing that happens is that the current moves the sand along until it gets into an inlet system and gets deposited."
If these barrier islands were uninhabited, with no man-made structures, that wouldnít be much of an issue. But for the people who have built homes on such beaches, those who visit and those who rely on tourism income, maintaining the beach is of vital importance. A wide beach and a stable dune structure protect the structures on the island from overwash and erosion.
In New Hanover County, the effort to slow the sands of time is centered on beach nourishment. The beach is here because sand that has accumulated in inlets and waterways is periodically pumped back onto the beach strand, simultaneously maintaining those waterways and renewing the buffer of sand between the homes on Wrightsville and the Atlantic Ocean.
"We move it, and nature moves it back, and we move it, and nature moves it back," Catlin said. "Thatís the process, and there are some that argue that itís not worth it and that we should all just move away from the beach, but as long as weíre still here and we have the opportunity to maintain that, then at least for the foreseeable future, it looks like a feasible way of doing it."
Renourishment has been going on in New Hanover County for several decades thanks to cooperation among the federal, state and local governments to fund and carry out the projects. The effort has been successful so far in New Hanover County. Over the last dozen years, Catlin says, the countyís FEMA claims (disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency) following major storms have been very low compared to other coastal communities.
In Wrightsville Beach, the projects have taken place on a four-year cycle. The last Wrightsville Beach project cost nearly $4.3 million, with the nonfederal share of $1.5 million split by the state and the county.
The project took place in the spring of 2006, after Hurricane Ophelia the year before had severely damaged the beach strand, destroying 50 percent of the dune structure. The project added 150 feet of width to the beach from the Blockade Runner to just north of Johnnie Mercerís Pier.
The importance of doing so cannot be overstated.
"Travel and tourism contribute about $200 billion to U.S. exports ó greater than the combined export value of U.S. agriculture products, aircraft, computers and telecommunication equipment. Out of all tourist-related revenues in the U.S., coastal states receive 85 percent, with beach tourists contributing $260 billion to the U.S. economy and $60 billion in federal taxes," says U.S. Representative Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.). "Federal funds for beach renourishment and waterway maintenance are vitally important to the economies of our coastal towns and to the environment that sea turtles and other marine life depend on."
Beach nourishment not only protects beach homes and property, it also ensures the continued existence of the countyís tourism industry.
"Itís about helping us maintain the properties along the coastline, but itís also about providing an enjoyable atmosphere for the hundreds of thousands of tourists that we get here," says Steve Whalen, mayor of Wrightsville Beach. "That beach is predominantly used by people who donít live here, so itís not just about the residents of Wrightsville Beach, itís about the 2 million people who visit us every year. [Beach nourishment] is right at the top of important things that we can never get complacent about."
Unfortunately, federal funding for such projects is becoming more and more difficult to obtain, and those close to the project are already looking for new ways to fund the next round of beach nourishment.
"The federal budget is extremely tight these days. There is a lot of competition for a relatively limited amount of funding," says Col. John Pulliam of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for carrying out dredging and renourishment projects.
The belt has been tightened for many such efforts, and in some cases, federal funding has dropped to zero.
There is good news, however. New Hanover County is ahead of the curve in the effort to supplement those funds, thanks to its room occupancy tax (ROT). A percentage of the revenues from the tax, levied on "heads in beds" ó overnight stays in hotels, condos and rental homes ó goes into a fund earmarked for beach nourishment.
"That fund has grown over the years to close to $25 million, and thatís great," Catlin says. "Because of some forward thinking years ago, weíre in a position that we can ride this storm out for a long time."
The idea is for the fund to reach a point where it is self-sustaining ó that is, for the income from interest and ROT revenue to be enough to fund the local share of nourishment projects in New Hanover County. Progress toward that goal is a balancing act; the lack of federal funding slows the process, and one big storm could change the whole equation.
"I think weíre almost to the point in New Hanover County, with as much help as we can get from the federal government, but understanding that sometimes itís going to be zero, and continued assistance from the state, that weíre sustainable," says Catlin. "And that does wonders for New Hanover County. We might be one of the few coastal communities in the nation that still has a nice beach line as everybody else is struggling because we have this in place."
Wrightsville Beach will be due for another round of beach nourishment ó currently projected at a cost of $6 million ó in 2010, and itís not too early to work to make sure itís funded.
Catlin says itís also important to think in the long term and plan ahead for a time when beach nourishment might not be enough to keep the ocean at bay.
"We live in a world that is constantly changing," he says. "The environment is changing, the sea level is changing, our resources are changing. As people, we have to change with it, but we donít have to change overnight. We need to engineer those solutions so that we have them when we need them."