State of the Sand: Preserving North Carolina’s Beaches and Inlets

BY Layton Bedsole

The wellbeing of Wrightsville Beach and our other coastal communities is a significant benefit not only for New Hanover County but also statewide. The local beaches inlets and waterways directly support North Carolina’s tourism industry and have heavily influenced economic growth east of the I-95 corridor.

North Carolina works hard to maintain our beaches inlets and waterways to ensure their usability while preserving their environmental integrity. Planning and assessment efforts are critical in assisting the state legislature as it considers approaches for fiscally supporting coastal storm damage reduction (CSDR) projects.

Anyone who has visited a beach in New Hanover County has seen the benefits of CSDR projects that involve building structures like jetties and groins and moving sand to mitigate the effects of storms and hurricanes. Maintaining the coastal infrastructure benefits the entire region and it has for at least five decades.

The first congressionally authorized coastal storm damage reduction (formerly known as beach renourishment) project took place at Carolina Beach in 1962 followed by Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach that same year.

One of North Carolina’s initial environmental restoration projects Carolina Beach Inlet was 10 years earlier. In 1981 Masonboro Inlet was completed with two parallel jetties making it the state’s only dual-structured inlet. Then North Carolina’s first inlet relocation project occurred in 2002 at Mason Inlet.

Each of these initiatives has provided public access to coastal resources and private investment in coastal tourism while protecting the sustainability of coastal habitats and species.

Behind these coastal projects are complicated legislative regulatory and fiscal processes. The projects begin in coastal governments and progress through the county to the state capital in Raleigh and then on to Washington D.C.

The authorization process required for beach and inlet oversight is complex and extensive. North Carolina’s coastal storm damage reduction projects receive intense regulatory oversight to assess potential cultural social economic and environmental effects. If a project is federally authorized its viability is systematically tracked with cost certifications every three years and economic assessments every five years. The financial assessments must continue to justify federal interest to ensure the return on investment is a positive result for taxpayers.

The 2016 economic assessments for Wrightsville Beach and Kure Beach by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resulted in benefit-cost ratios of 7.6 to 1.0 and 6.0 to 1.0 respectively. This means that at Wrightsville Beach for every dollar invested in coastal storm damage reduction the nation expects to receive $7.60 in return and at Kure Beach $6.

The Corps’ method of determining return on investment is very regimented and limited. The local formula is more expansive including the economic benefits to small businesses the protection of infrastructure the tourism base and other quality-of-life benefits.

That sounds simple right? It should be but getting the funding needed is more complicated. For example the Wrightsville Beach Coastal Storm Damage Reduction Project was reauthorized in the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 and included a construction cost-capacity calculated from an original 1982 cost estimate.

This cost estimate was prorated for a 50-year project lifecycle that extends to 2036. But coupled with the 2016 economic assessment it gives Wrightsville Beach the construction cost capacity for just one additional maintenance event even though there are 20 years remaining on the federal project cooperation agreement. So a post-authorization change report must be funded developed approved and authorized to allow Wrightsville Beach to continue competing for federal appropriations.

The most recent project appropriations provided a CSDR maintenance event in 2014 that recycled 750 000 cubic yards of sand from the Masonboro Inlet deposition basin. Retaining the project’s four-year maintenance cycle Wrightsville Beach’s next CSDR event should occur in the fall of 2017.

The Carolina Beach coastal storm damage reduction project faces similar yet unique challenges. It turned 50 years old in 2014 and was losing the ability to compete in the federal marketplace before receiving a three-year extension from Congress via the Water Resources Development Act of 2014. The act includes the potential of a 15-year extension following a Beach Renourishment Evaluation Report. This report must be funded developed approved and authorized to give Carolina Beach the ability to continue competing for federal appropriations through 2029.

The Kure Beach coastal storm damage reduction project was authorized in 1962 but not utilized until after the significant hit from Hurricane Fran in 1996. Kure Beach’s authorization is valid through 2047 but appropriations must be secured for each maintenance cycle.

CSDR efforts at the adjoining communities of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach last occurred in the spring of 2016 when approximately 890 000 and 655 000 cubic yards respectively were placed on Pleasure Island.

The Carolina Beach sand source is an engineered burrow site within the throat of Carolina Beach Inlet. The Kure Beach source is an offshore site less than three miles off the north end of Pleasure Island. These projects’ three-year maintenance cycles mean both are scheduled for their next event in 2019.

The Wrightsville Carolina and Kure Beach CSDR projects have protected public and private infrastructure small businesses jobs tax bases and our tourism industry.

Each New Hanover County beach is associated with an area inlet which fulfills distinct regional purposes and needs. The inlets provide economic and social drivers — varying from commercial fishing recreational boating and for-hire fisheries to infrastructure protection harbors of refuge and critical habitats for shorebirds and marine life.

In 1952 Carolina Beach Inlet was opened approximately eight miles south of Masonboro Inlet which separates Wrightsville and uninhabited Masonboro Island. This new inlet was within the northern third of New Hanover County peninsula’s eastern shoreline. Much as Masonboro Inlet created Masonboro Island so did Carolina Beach Inlet create Pleasure Island.

Carolina Beach Inlet was necessitated after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway including Snows Cut. This new tributary resulted in a river-influenced eddy effect within Myrtle Grove Sound which significantly reduced estuarine productivity. Opening Carolina Beach Inlet allowed for easy exchange between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River which helped to restore Myrtle Grove Sound’s viability and established a new access to the Atlantic.

As a shallow draft inlet it receives maintenance dredging almost quarterly. These maintenance events are carried out by the Corps of Engineers’ shallow draft dredge fleet and funded by New Hanover County Carolina Beach Kure Beach and the North Carolina Division of Water Resources.

In 1981 the southern jetty delineating Masonboro Inlet was completed. This second navigational feature in concert with the northern jetty and the associated northern weir (a submerged wall to passively manage sand bypassing) completed the dual-structured harbor of refuge and provided dependable ocean accessibility for the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Wrightsville Beach. Maintenance dredging of the inlet is scheduled with the Wrightsville Beach CSDR project — the accumulated sand within the inlet system is recycled back to the beach.

In 2002 Mason Inlet — separating Wrightsville Beach from Figure Eight Island — had migrated south to the point of undermining public and private infrastructure and threatening small businesses. The Mason Inlet Preservation Group consisting of approximately 500 parcel owners on each side of the inlet was formed to represent the inlet.

The preservation group assumed financial responsibility of maintaining a central inlet location to ensure two healthy inlet shoulders that would protect coastal infrastructure and coastal habitats. Mason Inlet was most recently maintained in 2016; relocating the inlet within the engineered footprint provided for a healthy inlet habitat.

All North Carolina inlets provide infrastructure support to our communities that in concert with our coastal storm damage reduction projects drive our coastal economies.

We all focus on the elements of life that take our time effort and money. But you only need to experience a sea turtle nest hatching (a boil) or fledged terns feeding in a nearshore school of bait fish to recognize and understand our responsibility to our beaches and coast. Together we can holistically manage preserve and cherish our coast.