Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposed budget includes $40 million for beach nourishment in recognition of the importance of South Carolina’s beaches to our tourism economy. Many will oppose this, while a certain constituency cannot wait for more sand to be placed on such beaches as Edisto, Hunting Island and Pawleys Island.
Opponents of nourishment often cite the futility of dumping sand in the ocean only to see it wash away. But a curious thing has happened in the past 40 years: Most of our developed beaches have expanded. A study by Clemson researchers found that the beachfront area increased by roughly 1,500 acres in South Carolina between 1987 and 2006. This is when the majority of nourishment projects were executed.
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Our research shows that about 60 discrete nourishment projects between 1954 and 2010 added about 44 million cubic yards of sand along 63 miles of beaches at an adjusted cost of about $350 million in 2010 dollars. Every cubic yard of sand adds about 1.5 square feet of beach area.
Contrary to popular wisdom, much of the sand imported to our beaches remains in place. Remember what Myrtle Beach looked like at high tide in the 1980s? Lots of exposed seawalls and a very narrow beach. Today, most seawalls are buried, and a protective strip of dunes exists between hotel swimming pools and a wide, dry-sand beach.
Sure, $350 million is a lot of money, but if it created 1,500 acres of prime beachfront area, what is the value added? Is an acre of oceanfront property worth a million dollars in South Carolina? Folks at Hilton Head would tell you to add another zero to that estimate — so 1,500 new acres of beach are probably worth at least several billion dollars.
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As the beloved late mayor of Edisto Beach, Burley Lyons, often said, “A healthy beach is a wealthy beach.” Adding sand is like a blood transfusion. We can let our beaches decline or give them periodic injections of sand to keep them going while maintaining homes and hotels that are such a big part of our economy. When a beach lacks sand because of erosion, and development is fixed in place, we can either abandon property at a huge buyout cost or nourish the beach. Wide beaches and high dunes add value, protect property, reduce storm damage and provide recreation area.
The nourishment projects through 2010 cost a lot, but expenditures have averaged about $40 per foot of beachfront per year (2010 dollars). The value of S.C. oceanfront property ranges from $5,000 to $50,000 per foot of shoreline. So to restore and maintain nearly two-thirds of South Carolina’s 100 miles of developed beaches since the 1980s has cost well under 1 percent of property values each year. And this is before considering the economic multipliers that ripple through communities that have healthy beaches and a strong tax base.
There is no question that beach nourishment is less permanent than the buildings and infrastructure it protects. Sand will move out of the eroding area, and projects will have to be repeated. Yet sand follows the principle of conservation of mass: Is not destroyed but maintains its volume and adds to beaches elsewhere.
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We are just beginning to have accurate surveys encompassing decades, where we can track regional erosion trends. One of the fascinating stories is where Hunting Island’s sand has gone: After eight nourishment events since 1964 and some of the worst erosion along the S.C. coast, Hunting Island has given up millions of cubic yards to Harbor Island and Fripp Island. Were it not for Hunting Island’s sand losses, then, both of those islands would have much narrower beaches. Neither Harbor Island to the north nor Fripp Island to the south has nourished its beach, yet both have benefited from nourishment at Hunting Island.
So before the budget debate begins, consider that nourishment has sustained much of our coast and continues to add value — even if the sand we have added has not stopped moving.
Dr. Kana is a board member of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association; contact hm at email@example.com.