Buying Back Beaches

Like King Canute, many beach dwellers and lawmakers should face limits on their ability to defy wind and wave.

A combination of late-summer vacations and another "hurricane season" focuses attention on a dilemma facing the country's beaches. Their attractiveness and tourism value are huge. But so is their age-old remapping by wind, waves, and floods.

To preserve the former despite the latter is a costly, often frustrating undertaking. It has been one, nonetheless, that Americans have enthusiastically shouldered in recent decades, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Despite the jetties, sea walls, and sand pumping to replenish beaches, seacoast erosion goes on. Anywhere from two feet to 14 feet of beach width disappears each year.

A recent research report from Congressional Quarterly notes that some 55 percent of Americans now live within 80 miles of an ocean or Great Lakes coast. Development and settlement trends suggest 75 percent will be coastal dwellers by 2025. Clearly, it's time for some careful forethought.

That should include rethinking the federal government's commitment to underwrite coastal development. One kind of underwriting is the National Flood Insurance Program. Since 1968, this program has protected the investments of thousands who live in coastal or inland areas subject to flooding. But concern mounts that premiums paid in are being overwhelmed by claims paid out - particularly after the series of disasters stretching from hurricane Andrew in 1992 to last year's floods on the Red River in North Dakota.

Most of those already covered by the program should remain within it, as a matter of fairness. Coverage may also be cautiously extended to others, since insurance helps reduce the amounts of emergency aid the government has to amass after a flood or storm. But eligibility should be tightened, especially when people are building or rebuilding on beaches and other sites that are frequently (in some cases almost annually) hit. In those cases, the owners and developers, not the public, should assume the risk. Subsidizing repeated sand castle rebuilding is a foolish waste of public money.

North Carolina's barrier islands are a case in point. The rebuilding pattern on storm-ravaged Topsail Island has gotten a lot of press since hurricane Bonnie paid a moderately devastating visit last month. Some dwellings there have been repeatedly rebuilt with the subsidy of federal flood insurance funds.

Also questionable are various other programs to shield or rebuild threatened beach property. Administration efforts to rein in Army Corps of Engineers' spending on beach restoration - $108.9 million this year - have been fiercely opposed by lobbyists representing beachfront communities, businesses, and developers. Those forces are also trying to breach the 1982 Coastal Barriers Resources Act, which prevents developers from drawing on any federal subsidies - beach replenishment to highway funds to mortgage insurance - for projects on 1.2 million acres of ecologically sensitive shoreline.

Lawmakers from Atlantic and Gulf Coast states have tirelessly angled for exemptions from the law. A legislative "rider" to that effect, covering some acreage in Florida, is currently attached to the Interior Department appropriations bill. That door should be kept firmly shut.

Beyond the political battle lies the practical question of how effective the costly shore-protection measures really are. Sea walls and jetties have often been shown to accelerate, not retard, erosion and beach loss. Natural forces of tides and waves shift sands - and sometimes whole islands - regardless of such manmade barriers. The corp's sand replenishing operations are more effective, though costs are high. One expert estimates the corps has spent $3.5 billion over the last three decades pumping sand to restore beaches. Administration plans to shift more of the cost for such projects to state and local governments, where most land-use and zoning decisions are made, deserve support.

Ultimately, more of the costs will have to be shouldered by those who choose to allow, and then make, investments in real estate that's here today but may be gone in a decade, a year, or even in a few hours of hurricane-force winds.

This issue will only become more urgent as people continue to gravitate shoreward, bringing with them new pressures on sensitive landscapes and increased water pollution problems. Birds and sea creatures are inevitably affected. Experts point out, for instance, that endangered sea turtle populations must have stretches of untrodden beach so their young can travel from nests back to the water.

And we haven't even mentioned another lurking factor: global warming and its potential acceleration of gradually rising sea levels. That in itself should spur careful reexamination of coastal development patterns.

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