Coastal geologist criticizes beach renourishment efforts, including in SC

Beachgoers watch from behind a safety fence in Fish Haul Creek Park in June as a Hilton Head beach nourishment project gets underway at Mitchelville Beach Park.
Beachgoers watch from behind a safety fence in Fish Haul Creek Park in June as a Hilton Head beach nourishment project gets underway at Mitchelville Beach Park. Jay Karr/jkarr@islandpacket.com

The federal government should rethink the wisdom of spending money to renourish beaches as sea levels rise and coastal property in the Carolinas and other places becomes increasingly vulnerable, a coastal geologist critical of renourishment efforts said Tuesday.

Rob Young, who heads the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, said the government is subsidizing coastal development with renourishment money – and that’s costing taxpayers. Communities across the country have spent millions of dollars renourishing beaches. Those efforts encourage people to rebuild after every major hurricane, he said.

During a talk with journalists in Asheville, Young also said the federal government isn’t studying beach renourishment comprehensively enough to know what impact it is having on the environment.

Dredging projects dig up sand from offshore, then dump it on beaches. That’s potentially affecting sea life and animals that live on beaches, he said.

Young used the example of Kiawah Island to explain his concern about the cost of renourishment on wildlife.

“There is a big difference between a beach that has never received beach nourishment, like Kiawah in South Carolina, for example, which is covered with birds and .... organisms, and a beach that’s had 50 years of beach nourishment,’’ Young said.

Unlike Kiawah, communities that have renourished for decades, such as Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and Virginia Beach, Va., appear to have less wildlife because the beaches have been sustained artificially, he said.

“They’re dead beaches,’’ Young said. “The only foraging shorebird there is a seagull with a French fry in his mouth.’’

Young said the government needs to conduct more detailed environmental studies of beach renourishment projects.

In the past 25 years in South Carolina, beach renourishment has become one of the most important ways that coastal communities try to keep shorelines wide and to protect coastal property. Sometimes, the sand washes away in a few years, resulting in a push for more renourishment.

Myrtle Beach, Folly Beach and Hilton Head Island are among the beaches that rely on regular widening projects. Overall, taxpayers have spent at least $200 million on beach renourishment projects in South Carolina – and the Legislature last year agreed to put more money toward the effort.

But Young said the major spender on renourishment projects is the federal government.

While the federal government during the past 15 years has signaled its intention of moving away from renourishment funding, Young said the government always comes through with money after major disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Some members of Congress “would like to back away from spending that federal money, but it has become very difficult for them to do that.’’

Young said he’s not advocating abandoning the coast, but using wiser coastal development policies.

He said beach renourishment can work in some cases, but not many.

“Sea level is rising, all of these shorelines are eroding,’’ he said, noting that “every coastal erosion problem we have today is only going to get worse, not better.’’

Young said “we just can’t afford to hold every single shoreline in place forever.’’

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