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Sand Decisions

By Lynda Van Kuren, posted May 19, 2023
Tim Owens, Wrightsville Beach town manager, said that high tide can come almost right up to the town's dunes, making it hard for people to enjoy the beach for parts of the day (Photo by Madeline Gray)
After a year of delay, it looks like Wrightsville Beach could finally get the sand it desperately needs. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District recently announced that it will use Masonboro Inlet as the source of sand to renourish the beach.

The Corps came to the conclusion, "based upon a case-by-case analysis of the conditions at Wrightsville Beach, to exercise Coastal Barrier Resources Act emergency exception 5(a)(3) and utilize the Masonboro Inlet/Banks Channel borrow source instead of an offshore borrow source for the upcoming emergency repair (renourishment). For this reason, the Corps does not plan to finalize the Environmental Assessment for the Wrightsville Beach Coastal Storm Risk Management Emergency Repair – Evaluation of Borrow Area Alternatives, New Hanover County, North Carolina," according to a news release. 

The release stated that the contract for the upcoming periodic nourishment will be solicited this summer, with construction occurring in the environmental window starting Nov. 16 and ending March 31.  

"Since Masonboro Inlet has been the historic borrow source for the project, the necessary environmental clearances are currently in place. The Corps will conduct all construction activities in accordance with the Final Integrated Validation Report and Environmental Assessment dated November 27, 2019, and will coordinate with applicable resource agencies throughout the project, as we always do," officials said in the release.

Renourishing Wrightsville Beach, as is the case in other area beach towns grappling with the same issue, isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. That stretch of sand is an infrastructure that serves as the primary defense for coastal homes and businesses against storm damage. It also attracts thousands of tourists every year who pump millions of dollars into the local economy.

“People renting houses on the beach, buying meals at restaurants and sunscreen at Walmart are all things that add to our economy,” said Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. “We have the benefit of people coming in and spending in our community.”

The Wilmington Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that “travel-generated state and local tax revenues save each New Hanover County tax resident an estimated $319.23 each year.”

Keeping Wrightsville Beach in prime condition is essential, but now the beach is in bad shape. 

“It’s in the worst condition in 10 years,” said Tim Owens, Wrightsville Beach’s town manager. “The dune system is eroded away, and we have erosion escarpment, which is within 90 feet of the foundations of beach homes in the central part of town. The condition of the beach is as bad as I’ve ever seen.”

Owens adds that the longer the area goes without renourishing the beach, the more susceptible homes are to damage.

Although the beach is in far from optimal shape, tourism hasn’t been impacted so far this year, and Owens expects that will be the case throughout the season. He said the town is already taking steps to ensure beachgoers’ safety. For example, the town has made adaptations for the beach’s emergency services. It is using smaller vehicles to navigate those places normal-sized emergency vehicles have trouble traversing. The town has also moved lifeguard stands to better spots. 

“We continue to provide a high level of service, even though the beach’s current condition has made it more difficult,” Owens said.

Also, during the renourishment process, the Corps will block off any parts of the beach that are dangerous – something the town has done during previous beach replenishment projects and that has “a temporary impact in temporary locations,” according to Owens. 

Even so, the beach’s current state could have ramifications next year and beyond. Vacationers who have a less-than-ideal experience this summer may have second thoughts about returning to Wrightsville Beach for their summer fun. 

“If you are renting a cottage on Wrightsville Beach, and there is water lapping at the base of the dune at high tide, you may not leave but you won’t be happy,” said Layton Bledsoe, New Hanover County’s shore protection coordinator. “But it will affect your decision for next year if you find no maintenance has been done.”

Officials agree that getting Wrightsville Beach’s sand replenished needs to happen yesterday. The issue started when Wrightsville Beach set about fulfilling its regularly scheduled beach renourishment cycle in 2022. The town expected to use sand from Masonboro Inlet, as it has done since 1965. 

Using a stricter interpretation of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) of 1982, the federal government ruled in 2019 that Masonboro Inlet was no longer exempt from the law. CBRA stated that federal money can’t be spent on projects such as roads, boat landings, bridges and projects to prevent the erosion of shorelines in designated coastal areas. Masonboro Inlet is a designated coastal area.

Wrightsville Beach officials, on the other hand, said 50 years of using Masonboro Inlet as a source without negative repercussions proves it is the better option environmentally. Augmenting their stance is the fact that the inlet provides natural recycling: The eroded sand migrates to the inlet, then it is scooped up and returned to the beach for renourishment. 

The offshore site carried a hefty price tag, some $25 million-$35 million versus $10.6 million for dredging Masonboro Inlet, according to English.

The federal government is footing the bill for this round of Wrightsville Beach’s renourishment project, thanks to the USACE. The corps included $11.6 million for the project in its work plan for the Disaster Relief and Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2022, and it also picked up the tab for the rest of the bill. 

However, that won’t necessarily be the case in the future. If so, Wrightsville Beach may need to come up with new ways to pay for its portion of pricey offshore dredging. Generally, the federal government funds 65% of these projects, and state and local governments each pay about 17%. New Hanover County earmarks part of the room occupancy taxes it collects for local beach renourishment projects.

Wrightsville Beach also sets aside money each year in case town funding is needed for beach renourishment, according to Owens. But he warns that if dredging prices continue to rise, or if state or federal participation does not happen, the town would need to look at all revenue options to complete future beach projects.

Whether Wrightsville Beach will be allowed to use Masonboro Inlet as an ongoing dredging site hinges on H.R. 524, a bill proposed by U.S. Rep. David Rouzer in January. If passed, H.R. 524 would  exempt Wrightsville Beach (and Carolina Beach) from CBRA restrictions.

Rouzer (R-NC) and Wrightsville Beach Mayor Darryl Mills put their case before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries at a legislative hearing May 10. 

“H.R. 524 … fixes this problem in a very common-sense fashion by creating the exemption making permanent that which has been practiced for 50 plus years,” Rouzer said. “It saves taxpayer dollars. It does not disrupt the ecological environment.”

The legislation has to be approved by the committee and then make its way through both the House and the Senate to be passed into law. Even if the bill is enacted, it may be too late to affect this round of beach renourishment.

Offshore dredging will be part of Wrightsville Beach’s future regardless of what happens in Washington. A stronger voice, that of Mother Nature, may cast the deciding vote. More frequent and more intense storms brought about by climate change are expected to cause more beach erosion, and that will necessitate finding new ways – like offshore dredging – to ensure the beach stays healthy. 

“We are thankful to have another choice,” Owens said. “The inlet is known and has worked well for many years. Offshore is unknown but could be necessary in the future. We wouldn’t want that option off the table.”

Offshore dredging still could be one of many solutions the town could implement to protect its beach. 

“We will need to replenish the beach more frequently or be more innovative in the way we place sand such as using different templates and different configurations of the sand,” said Joseph Long, director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s coastal engineering program. “There are things to try to increase the sand’s longevity on the beach.”

Editor's note: This version has been updated to reflect the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to use Masonboro Inlet.
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