In The News

N.C. lawmaker launches legislative debate over sand-pumping projects

Original Publication: Environment and Energy Publishing, January 08, 2013
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January 08, 2013

A North Carolina lawmaker has fired the opening shot in a bid to extend the federal government's commitment to pumping sand onto beaches to protect homes and businesses behind them.

Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) floated legislation last week that would create a framework to reauthorize Army Corps of Engineers beach-nourishment projects that are nearing their 50-year limit of federal funding.

Half a century ago, the American shoreline underwent a revolution. As the field of coastal engineering took off, the Army Corps began engineering beaches up and down the country's shores, pumping massive amounts of sand to widen them and build protective dune structures.

Over the years, such beach-nourishment projects have become lightening rods for controversy. Critics say they offer a disproportionate benefit to the wealthy who can afford beach homes and are a waste of taxpayer dollars since the sand will eventually erode back into the ocean. Federal taxpayers cover 65 percent of the initial costs, then half the costs for upkeep over the next 50 years.

Now, the first of those early designed beaches are nearing their 50-year mark. A portion of Virginia Beach, Va., will hit its 50-year anniversary next year. And Carolina Beach, N.C., which has cost more than $58 million in 2011 dollars over its lifetime, according to data compiled by Western Carolina University, will reach its limit in 2015. After that, the full cost of maintaining the projects will fall to the states and local governments.

That prospect has set off a lobbying push by beach communities to extend federal support for projects.

McIntyre (D-N.C.), whose district includes Carolina Beach, last week fired the opening salvo in the debate with his legislation (H.R. 161), which would create a framework for reauthorizing projects beyond their 50-year lifetimes.

"It is not fair or equitable for nonfederal sponsors to pay the full cost of continued construction for federal projects that protect the national public interest," according to a fact sheet on the bill from his office.

The bill would create a mechanism for the Army Corps to review projects as they near their 50-year limits and make recommendations to Congress about whether they should continue. Individual shore-protection projects would then need to be reauthorized by Congress.

Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist for shore-protection projects who represents Carolina Beach, said McIntyre's bill would force the Army Corps to go back and evaluate the design of its projects -- something critics fault the corps with rarely doing -- to determine whether the original design still makes sense.

"We have learned a lot over the last two decades about how to reduce risk and increase resiliency along the coast," Marlowe said. "Basically, the [projects nearing their 50-year limit] need to be evaluated to determine whether they would pass muster in terms of meeting the federal requirement."

Marlowe said that without ongoing federal support, which requires a certain level of public access to beaches, communities would cut off access and turn to hard structures for protection, which have a negative impact on beaches.

But Joshua Sewell, senior policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, said re-evaluation would not require a new look at the financial justification for the project. Federal projects must show the value of protected property exceeds the ongoing cost of the project.

"This is an effort to put beach-nourishment projects in perpetual motion," Sewell said. "Once you're in, you can get federal money to continue the project forever."

Dean Mitchell, a spokesman for McIntyre, said the congressman plans to offer the bill as an amendment should the House begin work on a Water Resources Development Act bill. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee began work on such a bill last fall, and Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she plans to pick the bill up again this Congress.

Written by: Annie Snider, E&E reporter

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