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Beach Erosion – Call to Action
Beach erosion is plaguing us at a time when people are flocking to the coast (more than 50% of the US population now lives in Coastal Counties), and when the US economy is strongly dependent upon coastlines and waterways (beach-related tourism contributes approximately $257 billion to the national economy1; 67% of our goods and services are delivered via marine transportation2).  Coastline erosion is a natural process that occurs when waves, tides and currents impact the shoreline, removing sand from one location and depositing it elsewhere.  Adding to economic losses, erosion adversely impacts the environment, reducing productivity of beach, dune, and nearshore habitats.  Some of the most diverse ecosystems are disappearing rapidly, including endangered species’ habitat, along the ecotone where the land transitions to the sea.  Americans also enjoy visiting the shorelines, waterways and beaches, all of which are affected by erosion.  These three “E’s,” the Economy, Environment, and Enjoyment are threatened by beach erosion.

A recent example highlighting the diverse impacts of erosion is occurring in Chatham, MA, where the beach was over-washed during a late season nor’easter in April ( CNN Video: Cape shore eroding).  If the new tidal inlet persists, impacts of the erosion will be substantial.  Economically, there is an active fishing fleet in Chatham whose primary access to the ocean is threatened as the eroded sand fills the waterway.  Access to historic cottages on the barrier island is limited, and landward mainland properties previously afforded shelter from direct exposure to ocean waves now can be damaged during the storms.  Some of the habitat for endangered species of shorebirds is lost.  How the community will respond will depend upon whether Mother Nature heals herself, and the availability of funding for solutions.  Of course, this Chatham Breachmost recent example in MA is only a miniature example of the damaging effects of barrier island erosion as compared to the losses along the Gulf Coast, where lives and livelihoods are at risk every day.

There are three options for responding to the retreating coastline:  retreat, armor, and build back the eroded beaches (beach nourishment), which are not mutually exclusive.  Where natural shorelines exist or critical/valuable infrastructure is not threatened, managed retreat is a viable option for responsible coastal zone management planning.  New development along eroding natural coastlines should be carefully managed.  Opportunities to move existing infrastructure back from eroding coasts should be exercised.  Many portions of our already developed coastline offer societal benefits that are too valuable to abandon, though.  Local businesses prosper, real estate taxes are generated that fund local schools, roads, and public infrastructure, and private and corporate tax revenues produce economic benefits nationwide.  In many areas, it is not feasible to retreat from the coastline.  Plus, it’s not what people want.

Where retreat is not feasible, well-managed shore protection strategies are required, including armoring and beach nourishment.  Although armoring (e.g., seawalls) may provide a last line of storm protection for upland infrastructure, armoring does little to maintain beaches.  In fact, armoring alone can exacerbate beach erosion by reducing upland sediment supplies that naturally replenish beaches.  Consequently, even where armoring is viable, there may be a need for beach nourishment as well.

Beach nourishment involves the placement of new sand on beaches to offset historical and ongoing erosion.  It is true that eroded sand is not “lost” from the system, but eroded sand is rarely deposited back on nearshore beaches (often transported to the offshore region or adjacent waterways).  Properly designed and engineered beach nourishment projects have proven effective, and supplemental sand sources are needed to proactively restore beaches.  Engineered beach nourishment projects require an understanding of the prevailing coastal erosion processes on a site-specific basis.  What works at one beach will not necessarily work at another; there is no silver bullet solution; and, there are no new miracle technologies that will manufacture sand.  Engineered beach nourishment projects include a specific quantity of sand, placed along a specific length of beach.  Clear expectations are required for the level of protection the nourishment will provide, and how long the project will last.  In certain cases, coastal structures can be combined with beach nourishment to extend the design life and improve cost-benefit ratios, in a manner that is consistent with environmental regulations.

beachBeach nourishment projects do not follow geopolitical boundaries or property lines.  Instead, well-designed projects must follow natural features for effective sand management.  This planning process depends upon cooperation between property owners, communities, environmental conservation agencies and public-private partnerships.  Potential impacts to coastal resource areas, shellfish and finfish habitats, foraging and nesting shorebirds, and commercial and recreational fishermen, sunbathers, surfers, etc. who enjoy the benefits of the marine resources all must be engaged.  Conflicting local interests can be resolved through open-minded cooperation and consensus-building, united by the common goal to maintain a healthy coastline.

Reliable funding streams also are required for effective shoreline stabilization.  Since beach erosion is not only a problem for the waterfront property owners, both public and private dedicated funds are required.  People who live on the coast must recognize there is a substantial cost for maintaining this luxury.  Coastal communities must also face the facts that government resources must help solve the problem.  Local ad valorem taxes and assessments, bed taxes, beach user fees, and various other funding options must be explored.  There is a role for the state and federal government as well to protect its vested interest in maintaining the coastal infrastructure, and progress through passage of a Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA) Bill will help advance the national investment in our beaches and waterways.

Some parts of the country are more proactive than others when investing in the coastline.  Florida’s state initiative, for instance, includes tax revenues from the general state fund that, when matched with federal and local governmental and private funding, can produce up to $100M in a given year in shoreline protection and beach nourishment projects.  This is an appropriate level of investment given the importance of beaches to the Florida economy.  State initiatives in North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, California and elsewhere also produce substantial shoreline restoration efforts.  Where federal benefits are proven, (e.g., many well-known mid-Atlantic beaches) US Army Corps of Engineers funding also may be substantial.

Traditionally, the northeast has not been as proactive with regional efforts to manage shoreline erosion, but the tide is changing.  Building on its beach nourishment experience with various beach nourishment clients since 1986 throughout the US, Woods Hole Group currently is planning new beach nourishment projects in Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, many with government cooperation and cost-sharing.  In Massachusetts, with its more than 1,500 miles of shoreline, a Coastal Hazards Commission was appointed by the Governor to draft recommendations for a 20-year Coastal Infrastructure and Protection Plan.  Early recommendations include prioritizing shorelines in need of nourishment, and pursuing regional offshore borrow sites to provide sand in a cost-effective, environmentally-responsible fashion.  Policy changes won’t be realized immediately in the place where the Pilgrims landed, traditions are strong, and public/private access to the shoreline is challenging; however, steady progress is certain.

Leaders are needed to encourage the nation to embrace the value of our beaches and waterways.  The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association recently encouraged a “Take Your Legislator to the Beach Week,” a call to action for all with an interest in stabilizing and revitalizing the coastline.  Visit the ASBPA website to learn more.  It is an ongoing initiative that requires leadership and grass roots level lobbying for people to work together to invest in the beaches.  Participate in beach clean-up days; talk to your neighbors, colleagues, government officials, and vested stakeholders about gaining their involvement and support.  Your involvement in beach restoration initiatives will produce results that benefit the economy and the environment, and most importantly increase our much-needed enjoyment of our coastline.

Robert Hamilton, Jr.

Robert Hamilton, Jr., Vice President, Business Development/Coastal Engineer
Mr. Hamilton has over 13 years of experience in environmental consulting with focus on coastal and oceanographic environments.  His technical specialty is in solving problems and managing projects related to planning, engineering design and environmental permitting for shore protection, dredging, habitat restoration, and infrastructure development (e.g. seawalls, pipelines) in the coastal zone. Mr. Hamilton holds a masters degree in civil engineering from the University of Delaware.


1“The Economic Value of Beaches,” presented by Dr. James Houston, USACE, at Sustainable Beaches Summit, Sandestin, FL, March 30, 2004.
2 US Department of Transportation/Marine Transportation System
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