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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beach Restoration

Air Date: Week of

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Host Steve Curwood talks with Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, about beach erosion, and the spending of federal money on something that may just wash away in the end.


CURWOOD: It's summer, and high time for hitting the beach. But many of these U.S. shorelines have suffered erosion from wind, rain and the occasional hurricane. The standard solution is to call in the Army Corps of Engineers to dump more sand on those beaches. The House of Representatives recently passed a measure that would allot a record $150 million dollars to the Corps for beach restoration projects. If it passes in the Senate, the measure would overrule a proposal by President Bush to cut back on federal spending for these projects. Critics say that they're not only a waste of money, but can hurt the environment. Cornelia Dean is science editor for the New York Times, and author of the book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches." She joins us to talk about the consequences of beach restoration. Welcome!

DEAN: Thank you.

CURWOOD: So what exactly is wrong with restoring beaches?

DEAN: Well, in theory, nothing I guess, if you could do it safely, if it had no environmental consequences, and if the people who benefited from it were the people who paid for it. None of which is actually the case.

CURWOOD: If you look at the science, I understand that a number of beach restoration projects are problematic, at best. Can you give us some examples?

DEAN: The beach, a natural beach, is an ecosystem like any other bit of landscape, and when you dredge sand up and dump the sand on this kind of an ecosystem, you, at a minimum, seriously disrupt it. And if you don't match the grain size exactly and that kind of thing, you can change the underlying conditions such that the ecosystem is destroyed. This is particularly an issue in places where sea turtles nest, because sea turtles are very vulnerable to changes in conditions of grain size, beach temperature, water content, and so on. And they are endangered everywhere that they nest in the United States. So, a lot of people say that these beach nourishment projects are bad for the turtles. Of course, the counter-argument to that is, if there were no beach replenishment projects in many of these places, there would be no beach, and then the turtles would be totally out of luck. They would have no place to nest at all.

CURWOOD: Typically, where does the sand come from to compensate for erosion?

DEAN: What happens is, first of all, you have a town which has a beach that's eroding, which means that the ocean is just moving in on the land. And so people want to pump more sand up on the beach, and they identify a source of high-quality beach sand, which is not as simple as it seems, because much of the ocean is not exactly sandy, it's muddy. There are a number of places offshore in Florida that people have identified, and, in fact, towns in Florida fight over those sand resources, over who owns them, because they are in chronic desperate need for replenished sand for their beaches. So they send a dredge, a barge, out to that source of sand, which digs it up, or pumps it up, from the bottom of the ocean, puts it in the barge, and then mixes it with water to make a slurry, and sends that slurry through pipes that spew it up onto the beach. And Florida is now also going to the Bahamas and buying sand from the Bahamas, which raises the eyebrows of a number of people because they fear that the Bahamas are not nearly as wealthy, people in the Bahamas are not nearly as wealthy as people in Florida, that they are going to be damaging their environment for short-term economic gains.

CURWOOD: How much does beach restoration cost, and who pays for it?

DEAN: The cost varies wildly. And they're paid for typically in a cost-sharing arrangement in which the federal government pays 65 percent and the states and localities pay 35 percent. There are a number of people now who say that this is a local problem now and should be financed locally. And one very interesting question is, if the local people had to bear the whole cost of these works, would they go ahead and pay them? And in many places, the answer's probably no. But because the federal government is paying two-thirds of the cost, the projects go ahead.

CURWOOD: Who in Congress pushes for beach restoration?

DEAN: Representatives from coastal states.

CURWOOD: Is there a beach caucus?

DEAN: I don't actually know if it's formally organized, but they work together. There is a big lobbying effort on behalf of this, and the advocates for this on the coast oftentimes are, you know, people who own property on the coast, which is the most expensive real estate in the nation, you know, tend to be prosperous people with connections, political connections. It's not the case all the time, of course. There are many retired people, small holders. But the advocates of this kind of replenishment project tend to speak with a loud voice, and pressed their members of Congress, and their members of Congress responded.

CURWOOD: If more money is thrown at this problem every time a beach erodes, and beachfront property needs to be rebuilt, what's this saying to beachfront property owners?

DEAN: That's one of the major worries of people who are opposed to this kind of spending, because they say all it does is encourage people to build in places where they should not be building in the first place, with the expectation that the federal government will be there, you know, in perpetuity, with large amounts of money to bail them out.

CURWOOD: Cornelia Dean is science editor for the New York Times, and author of the book, "Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches." Thanks for being here.

DEAN: Thank you.




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