As it has gained popularity as a means of stabilizing shorelines and protecting infrastructure, concerns have been raised about beach nourishment.
Two areas in particular are often cited as possible disadvantages of a nourishment project: environmental damage, and ongoing cost and commitment.
Although a beach may appear to be a sterile environment, it is actually a place of vibrant life.
Ghost crabs are perhaps the most visible inhabitant of the intertidal zone—or the area of damp sand. They are by no means the only inhabitants. Many of the fauna that live in this area are almost microscopic—but all of them are important to a healthy beach and ocean environment.
Birds and animals eat ghost crabs. Ghost crabs are opportunistic feeders and part of their diet are the smaller animals that live in the intertidal zone. At high tide, fish enter the intertidal zone and feast on the unseen but abundant life of the beach.
Suffice to say, 1,000,000 cubic yards of sand pumped on to the beach has a negative effect on the creatures in the intertidal zone. Beach nourishment does cause short-term environmental damage to the beach.
The debate, then, centers on what happens on the beach a year after replenishment, or even two or three years later. What’s the conclusion? When measuring the effects one year later and beyond, the conclusion has been that longer term impacts of beach nourishment are either marginal or nonexistent.
“Literature reviews of beach nourishment impacts to beach infauna … report short-term declines in infaunal abundance, biomass, and taxa richness following beach nourishment, with recovery occurring between 2 to 7 months. More recent studies conducted since then have also observed quick recovery times as well…” (Beach Nourishment: A Review of the Biological and Physical Impacts, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, 2002). Please note that “infauna” refers to the animals living in the sediment of the ocean floor.
There are also concerns about sea turtle nesting. Sea turtle nest are more frequent on Pea Island and south; they do occur above Hatteras Inlet, but become less likely in each town north of the inlet. Nonetheless, federal law requires a monitor on the beach during nesting season.
There are a number of theories addressing the rapid regeneration of intertidal communities after beach nourishment. Certainly the quick life cycle of many of the species is helpful. Scientists, however, are increasingly pointing out that a properly nourished beach is a healthier environment for the organisms than a narrow beach battered by the surf.
Costs-Initial and Ongoing
Beach nourishment is expensive. The project cost for the northern Outer Banks towns of Duck, Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills is $38.6 million, not including consulting fees and initial assessments. A project that is almost underway in Buxton has an estimated price tag of $25 million. The Nags Head project, completed in 2011, cost approximately $30 million. That totals almost $94 million in Outer Banks nourishment projects, and that figure does not include NCDOT projects to protect highway hotspots on Hatteras Island.
Yet as expensive as it is, communities that have decided to move ahead with beach nourishment have come to the conclusion that doing nothing will be even more expensive. In almost every case, communities that are nourishing their beaches have tourism based economies and view the beach as a vital part of their infrastructure. Without the beach, tourism would decline and the town and its residents would bear the brunt of that loss.
In addition to a loss in tourist revenue, unprotected properties along the shoreline are endangered. That concern has played out with devastating clarity in Kitty Hawk where beachfront cottages that had once lined the Beach Road have disappeared in the half mile south of the Black Pelican. A property that has been claimed by the sea represents a loss to the property owner and a loss in revenue by the town.
It’s not all bad news about cost, however. Although it is not a permanent solution, beach nourishment does provide protection for a number of years. Nags Head, where their initial project ended in 2011, will probably replenish their shoreline next year, seven years later. That would provide an annual cost of about $4.3 million per year.
Additionally, the ongoing price tag is not nearly as great as the initial cost.
Some of the engineering studies that were needed for the first round of permits are not needed; and not all of the sand that was initially pumped onto the beach has been lost, so the cost of the operational part of the process is significantly less.