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Beach brouhaha: As coastlines erode, who pays for new sand?

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2004


Neat rows of townhouses, all in bold Miami Vice colors, face the beach where boys cast into the surf for bluefish and sea oats rustle in the breeze. It's an idyllic place, but a shifty one, with tidal waters so strong and tumultuous that sailors once nicknamed this coastal stretch, "The Graveyard of the Atlantic."

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Every few years, the Army Corps of Engineers drops in to pump sand from the bottom of the nearby Cape Fear River, shoring up this vacationers' beachhead. Otherwise, locals say, this village of 2,000 year-round residents would have washed away long ago.

Today Kure Beach and hundreds of other coastal communities from the Jersey Shore to the tip of Florida are at the center of a renewed debate: Should US taxpayers in Kansas and Idaho be paying to safeguard coastal residents from the ocean's will - or should beach towns have to shovel the sand themselves?

Although the Clinton administration made the first of several failed efforts to end federal funding of "beach renourishment" in 1995, a special order from President Bush to cut the $120 million-a-year program is heating up the rhetoric again. Now, for the first time, dozens of small coastal towns are joining a pending lawsuit to stop the gambit. The debate has been fueled by this summer's record landings of four major hurricanes, which destroyed miles of beaches and exposed the weaknesses - and costs - of coastal economies.

"It's a Sisyphean task to stabilize beaches that have no intention of staying put," says David Conrad, a beach expert at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington. "Much of the Bush administration's concerns have stemmed from the enormous and sustained costs these projects represent."

Critics of the plan, who are pushing Congress to overturn the White House order before it takes effect Nov. 20, say that federal beach-renourishment projects are a public good: The beaches are accessible to all and put tax revenue into federal coffers. And as a matter of principle, they argue, the government has an obligation to help protect America's boardwalks, arcades and high-rise hotels.

But advocates of reforms like these say that that federal programs actually promote overdevelopment - "Myrtle Beaching," as some call it - which, when hurricanes plow through, costs taxpayers billions in emergency subsidies and rebuilding costs.

"Unfortunately, rather than any type of careful thinking about where it's good to build and where it isn't, [the beach-renourishment program] promotes rampant growth almost anywhere on the coast," says Sidney Maddocks, an environmentalist who lives on Hatteras Island. "Places where people didn't build 60 or 70 years ago are now seeing eight- or 10-bedroom houses being built at base flood elevation."

The effects of tides are apparent on the seaboard: After hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit Florida, 20 miles of sand washed away on Daytona Beach, reducing broad beaches to steep inclines.

On Figure Eight Island here in North Carolina, desperate homeowners have shored up the disappearing beach by throwing concrete-weighted tractor tires onto the sand. A project to shovel more sand onto a 17-mile stretch of Dare County beaches in North Carolina will cost $1.68 billion, most of it paid for by taxpayers.

"Can the nation afford to do this at a minimum cost of $1 million per mile every three to six years?" asked Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey in a recent letter to Raleigh Metro Magazine.