What this Biden administration ruling could mean for New Hanover beach town renourishment projects

Federal expenditures are a necessity for beach nourishment projects, which typically carry price tags of millions of dollars
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 3:17 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Beach nourishment projects in New Hanover County could soon be even more complicated because of a new interpretation of a federal law known as the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA).

The purpose of CBRA, in part, is to limit development on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

“In the early 1980s, Congress recognized that certain actions and programs of the Federal Government have historically subsidized and encouraged development on coastal barriers, resulting in the loss of natural resources; threats to human life, health, and property; and the expenditure of millions of tax dollars each year,” according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Services.

CBRA disincentivized development in these areas by making most of the land ineligible for federal expenditures; however, locally, there have been some exceptions to the rules, particularly when it comes to dredging and beach nourishment.

Federal expenditures are a necessity for beach towns in the Cape Fear region for beach nourishment projects, which typically carry price tags of millions of dollars. Since 1994, the Department of the Interior has said that sand dredged from CBRA zones can not be used to nourish beaches outside of the CBRA zones. Port City Daily first reported the possible problems the new rules could pose for our beach towns.

Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach both dredge sand for their beach projects from Masonboro Inlet and Carolina Beach Inlet, respectively. Both are in CBRA zones, while the beaches they nourish are not. Despite the act being in place since 1982, the beach towns have operated under an exemption based on a 1998 opinion by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and used sand from the CBRA zones to put sand on their beaches.

In 2019, the Trump administration made its own interpretation of the act that explicitly allowed the removal of sand from CBRA zones to be used outside of their boundaries.

“After considering the plain language of the Act, we conclude that the exemption in Section 6(a)(6)(G) is not limited to shoreline stabilization projects occurring within the System. Thus, sand from within a System unit may be used to renourish a beach that is located outside of the System,” according to the 2019 ruling.

This new interpretation of the law could have significant impacts on the towns if they want to continue getting federal funding for their beach projects.

“First of all, it’s a financial issue. It’s a lot cheaper to transport the sand there — or to pipe it from there [from the inlet] than it would be out in the ocean,” Carolina Beach Town Manager Bruce Oakley said.

There are also other environmental concerns he has when it comes to bringing sand in from offshore that could be even more impactful on the ocean than the current dredging the town has been doing for years.

“We’ve been doing these projects for decades and decades with no adverse impact on the environment. There are still birds who migrate and use these areas, we still have turtles who use our beaches for nesting, and we’re not aware of any adverse environmental impact,” Intergovernmental Affairs Manager for New Hanover County Tim Buckland said.

It’s not like these inlets are not already dredged; in fact, it’s the opposite in Carolina Beach.

“The inlet is dredged almost once a quarter now for the economy of our boating and fishing industry so that sand to be recycled from there would have less of an environmental impact than if we were to go offshore and get sand,” Mayor LeAnn Pierce said.

Short-term impacts

While the new ruling is causing some confusion as to what is next for the beach towns, both Buckland and Oakley say that they believe the projects that have been approved for the next 15 years are still safe.

“That is our understanding. We can continue to do the upcoming projects, but we are waiting for the Corps of Engineers to verify that to get their interpretation on that, but it is our understanding that until our 15 year project expires we can continue to use that sand,” Oakley said.

However, the ruling from the federal government reads a bit differently and specifically names both local beach towns.

“To date, CBRA consultation with the Service has only been completed under the 2019 interpretation for two planned Corps renourishment projects in North Carolina (Coastal Storm Risk Management for Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach) that seek to dredge sand from within the CBRS for use outside of the System. It is our understanding that those renourishment projects have not yet been carried out on the ground, and that no federal funds have yet been committed,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Effective immediately, federally-funded actions and projects that seek to dredge sand from within the CBRS for nonstructural shoreline stabilization outside of the CBRS will no longer be eligible for consideration...” that memo continues.

If this position is taken and upheld, it could mean the towns will face some challenges as they move forward with trying to get federal funding for their beach nourishment projects.

“The new ruling on borrowing sand from the CBRA zone will likely make nourishment projects more expensive for the Carolina Beach project, more complicated, and potentially more dangerous for contractors. It is my understanding that the Town has always used sand from the CBRA zone for nourishment for the past 50 plus years,” Oakley said.

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