Gone with the wind: Storms deepen beach sand crunch

N.C. has added 137 million cubic yards of sand to the state’s beaches over the years

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
A view looking south of the Atlantic Ocean and the beach near Corolla. (Eamon Queeney - North State Journal)
Morehead City Harbor maintenance dredging with concurrent beach nourishment in Atlantic Beach continues to rebuild the shoreline after storms.

RALEIGH — As North Carolina enjoys a week of spring winter in February, many will head to the state’s beaches for a little sand between their toes. But that sand is getting harder to come by.

N.C. is one of many coastal states with a sand replenishment program designed to protect and rebuild the shoreline following violent storms, according to the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA).

“North Carolina has 325 miles of ocean front. Only half of that is developed land while the other half is devoted to state parks, public access and more. We have more underdeveloped land in North Carolina than other states have total,” said Greg L. “Rudi” Rudolph, shore protection manager with the Carteret County Shore Protection Office.

Beach erosion occurs due to storm damage, short sand supply, and water whisking the sand out to sea. A chain of storms with a heavy intensity can cause the sea level to rise significantly and ultimately remove parts of the beach. This is where beach replenishment becomes a key component of strengthening and protecting the beaches once again.

“Beaches are essentially a piece of infrastructure,” said Rudolph. “Take a road for instance, if it has a pothole, you’re going to fix it. If the beach has eroded, we are going to fix it.”

Carteret County is proactive in combating beach erosion and replenishing sand. They have volume goals set for the beaches to remain healthy and viable. If a storm causes the sand volume to diminish, then the Shore Protection Office works to nourish the sand back to its target volume.

“North Carolina has made decisions to protect our beaches and shores, and we are wise in the ways in which we do that,” said Rudolph.

Florida has spent the most on beach projects and has performed maintenance most frequently along the most miles of beach. The state has 825 miles of sandy beaches along its 1,350 miles of coastline, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Over the years, Florida has spent $1.3 billion on sand replenishment, unadjusted for inflation, since its first project in 1944; the number of fills is 545; and the miles covered is 237.

California has placed the most sand by volume on its beaches — 394 million cubic yards of sand since its first project in the Los Angeles coastal suburb of San Pedro in 1927. Florida comes in second with 301 million cubic yards. North Carolina put down 137 million cubic yards of sand. New Jersey has placed 171 million cubic yards and New York has placed 158 million.

Florida and New Jersey were the only states with designated funds for beach sand until 2017, when North Carolina became the third state to create such a reserve.

Increases in projects and storms in 2017 means that there soon may not be enough sand to go around. A potential sand shortage has led to lawsuits in Florida as the state tries to protect its $67 billion tourism industry amid rising costs and tight public funds even during calmer years. The quick succession of powerful storms in recent years makes the challenges even more daunting.

By one estimate, based on a sample of beaches, Irma knocked out four times the amount of sand Matthew displaced, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman John Campbell said. Matthew is already considered one of the worst storms in recent memory.

As needs and costs rise in Florida, communities are increasingly competing both for sand and funding, with some retaining “sand lobbyists” to represent them in state and federal legislatures.

This week, down the palm tree-lined roads of northeast Florida’s Flagler County, a half-dozen dump trucks are shuttling back and forth along the Atlantic coast pouring thousands of tons of sand onto the local beach. The estimated $26 million project began late last month.

Flagler County tried for more than a decade to get the federal sand funds used for popular beaches like Miami before turning to local tax dollars, private money and emergency aid to rebuild dunes and protect neighborhoods flooded in Matthew, Irma and several nor’easters since.

In 2013, Miami-Dade and Broward counties ran out of offshore sand, prompting what is considered the state’s first major projects to truck sand from inland mines. More Florida counties have since turned to the practice.

Reuters News Service contributed to this report.