Beach Nourishment is Only a Band-Aid–Not a Solution

The following editorial originally ran in The Southampton Press, Western edition, Page A10 of Thursday, July 10, 2014. 

“Within the next 15 years, higher sea levels combined with storm surge will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion. Adding in potential changes in hurricane activity, the likely increase in average annual losses grows to up to $7.3 billion, bringing the total annual price tag for hurricanes and other coastal storms to $35 billion.”

These projections come from a new report commissioned by the Risky Business Project, co-chaired by Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg and others.

According to the executive summary of the report, The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States: “if we continue on our current path, by 2050 between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing coastal property will likely be below sea level nationwide.” The Northeast and Southeast regions are likely to experience the lion’s share.

As project co-chair and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson reasons, “to plan for climate change, we must plan for volatility and disruption.”

Currently, the Village of Quogue has no such plan. Instead, we have been historically reactive to coastal events and rely on an outdated coastal management framework that, aside from a few amendments, has largely gone untouched since the late 1990s. Our current generic environmental impact statement—a document upon which many erosion control and development permitting decisions are based—was written nearly 20 years ago.

Regrettably, our complacence has led us to become overly receptive to suggestions that we shelter in place and fortify our coastline through beach nourishment and the use of “soft structures” like geo-cubes. Be aware that neither of these measures saves the dunes and beaches, as some would suggest. They protect houses—most often, to the detriment of the beach.   

The massive projected property losses that will occur over the next few decades, when combined with the soaring cost of our disappearing sand reserves, means that the American taxpayer will in no way be able to afford maintaining the coastline through the questionable methods in use today. It also means that the federal government will no longer be there to bail us out, like it has done in West Hampton Dunes.   The government is getting out of the nourishment business. If we choose that path, we alone must absorb the cost.   

As oceanfront homeowners, this is a sobering reality. Yet, it is an important realization that requires action. We must actively consider ways to mitigate the risks presented by climate change and a rising sea, and not by dumping many millions of dollars onto our beach, again and again and again, only to have it wash away.   

In Quogue, and in the face of a pending application for a dredging project, we would be wise to reserve our 1.1 million cubic yards of naturally placed offshore sand—and projected $15 million of financial resources—for the inevitable and true emergency situations that a rising sea will bring. We should not rush to re-engineer the village’s beachfront, which, save for a handful of investment properties, is overwhelmingly healthy. We should not be listening to testimony from commercially motivated consultants who stand to benefit enormously from beach engineering interventions. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that when such an emergency arises, that a Band-Aid like nourishment represents a plausible solution.   

A solution must come in the form of a well-developed, rational, coordinated coastal management plan that accounts for the fact that property will eventually be lost; one which recognizes that further developing our barrier island is a fool’s errand, and one which concedes that undertaking a nourishment program introduces moral hazard by encouraging additional development in the last place it should be occurring—inflating the costs to us all.   

In concert with neighboring communities, Quogue should focus its energies on creating a plan that allows us to move out of our beach’s way, allowing it to naturally migrate landward and continue protecting us, while enabling us to enjoy it in an unadulterated state. In so doing, we can preserve something uniquely extraordinary.   

We should consider policy tools like tax incentives for relocation, moving structures back and property buyouts, while aiming to restore the full natural coastal ecosystem (which will occur if we allow nature to take its course), increase sand bypassing at the inlets, and continue use of the traditional methods of beach scraping and snow fencing to maintain a sustainable coastal environment and beach community.   

“We must start changing our business and public policy decisions today,” Mr. Paulson writes. “Taking a business as usual approach is, in fact, radical risk-taking … the investments we are making today will determine our economic future.”   

Rather than pursuing expensive, temporary beach nourishment projects that require perpetual reinvestment and maintenance, Quogue has an opportunity to refuse special interest lobbying, to reverse course and establish a precedent for the rest of our coastline. We can pioneer a path that accounts for the risks, acknowledges the reality we face and represents a more prudent path forward.   

Our children, our environment, and our wallets will thank us.

Click here to read the original article, authored by CCQ member J. Michael Reinoso.

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