“Down at the seashore, isn’t it grand? Wiggling my toes in the soft warm sand, building a tall sand castle, where the king and queen stay, when the tide comes rushing in they will have to move away.”
— Traditional nursery rhyme

This summer, visitors will flock to seaside resorts like Ocean City, MD, and Virginia Beach, seeking sun, surf and sand. But the sand would not be here — nor at the majority of beaches from Massachusetts to Florida — if it weren’t for multimillion-dollar, long-term beach replenishment projects that protect the physical and economic foundations of these beach communities from damaging storms.

Virginia Beach taxpayers invest between $2 million and $3 million annually to preserve this beachfront that draws a much-larger number of dollars from tourists who flock to this community, said Phillip Roehrs, Virginia Beach’s water resources engineer. “There’s one thing we can do quite easily to address sea level rise,” he said, “and that is to build the beaches higher.

Terry McGean, city engineer for Ocean City, also thinks that for large oceanfront communities, beach replenishment provides flexibility in the face of the uncertainty of how high — and fast — sea level will rise. “The beauty of a beach replenishment project is that you can adjust it in the face of what sea level rise actually is.”

The risk of increased coastal flooding means that beach replenishment projects may become more important to seaside communities. But as supplies of offshore sand used for these projects become scarce and competition increases for federal funding to rebuild after larger, more damaging storms, will there come a point when building beaches higher becomes untenable economically and politically?

Ocean-facing beaches gain and lose sand through the seasons and over time as a result of natural processes. Currents that run along the shore move sand along the coast, while other forces continually move sand and other sediments between the beach and offshore sandbars through cycles of erosion and accretion.

Undeveloped beaches, such as those on Virginia’s barrier islands, migrate, eroding in some places while elsewhere building vast sandy peninsulas like the tip of Assateague Island. Left alone, inlets fill in, and heavy storms cut new channels across islands.

But increasingly since the early 1900s, people have built hardened structures like jetties and seawalls as protection against the relentless forces of ocean and wind. These have interrupted the dynamic equilibrium between sand and sea.

Before those measures became available, retreating was the only option for many homeowners. In the 1920s, the 300 residents of Wash Woods, a community south of Virginia Beach, started to leave, weary of repeated inundations from the sea washing over the dunes. All that remains today is the Methodist Church’s steeple.

Today, there are what engineers call the “softer” structural options — like beach replenishment, where stretches of beach are rebuilt to resist erosion. Tons of sand are sculpted into a profile designed to provide protection to the hotels and boardwalks that anchor a way of life for many beachfront communities.

These engineered beaches must be replenished every few years or after especially damaging storms through fresh infusions of sand obtained from some other location. The larger projects, like those at Virginia Beach and Ocean City, are built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and have multi-decade project time lines. John Headland, a private engineering consultant involved with coastal projects for more than 30 years, said, “You have to replace pavement on streets, and likewise you have to replace sand on beaches.”

Evaluating projects after changes

Since 2008, Corps policy requires that all projects must “incorporate” sea level rise in designs and in 2011, it provided further guidance to project managers on how to do this.

Justin Callahan, coastal engineer with the Corps’ Baltimore District, explained that beach replenishment projects are more at risk from increases in storm surges — a function of sea level rise and the intensity, direction and duration of repeated storms — than from sea level rise alone.

Given more sophisticated data analysis on sea level rise trends, the Corps is reviewing design criteria for all of its coastal protection projects. Accommodating changing conditions and new data are part of the ongoing review process for long-term beach renourishment projects, said Jen Armstrong, a Corps project manager in the Norfolk district office. “We have a mechanism to go back and evaluate our projects based on changing conditions.”

This kind of adaptive management, Headland said, offers a conservative approach for coastal communities to meet the challenges of accelerating coastal erosion resulting from rising seas. A beach replenishment project designed to a certain width and elevation geometry can provide protection and be adjusted periodically to increasingly higher elevations as needed. “This gives you a lot of flexibility,” Headland said, over the planned project period, which can span up to 50 years.

But beach replenishment alone isn’t sufficient to protect important infrastructure located “off the beach” like roadways, electrical power and stormwater collection systems. All are increasingly vulnerable to damage from floodwaters associated with longer and more intense storms. Ocean City's stormwater system has limited ability to drain streets during flooding. During Hurricane Sandy, Ocean City's engineered beach survived mostly intact. But, McGean said, “All our flooding — and property damage — was from the Bay side.”

Sharing the benefits – and costs

The first designed beach renourishment project was constructed in 1922 at Coney Island, and was followed in the next 80 years by 333 engineered projects — and 517 million cubic yards of sand — along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The Army Corps of Engineers was an adviser for the early projects, and since the 1950s has managed all federally funded beach renourishment projects, expanding its traditional role in improving flood protection, harbors and waterways. The beach sand projects are selected and funded based on “federal interest.” This means they must meet a threshold where the cost of preventing storm-related damage to public infrastructure and private homes is significantly lower than the costs likely to be incurred as a result of significant storm damage.

In Maryland, combined costs for the Ocean City beach project have topped $115 million since 1998. But McGean said the latest estimate is that $717 million of damage has been prevented by these beach improvements.

For the Ocean City project — a 9-mile stretch of beach partly buttressed by a sea wall that protects the boardwalk — the federal government provides 53 percent of the cost. The remaining 47 percent is split evenly in two parts, one paid by Maryland and the other paid by the town of Ocean City and the surrounding county.

All parties share in the costs because all derive some benefits. For the Corps, the spending reduces the federal government’s costs for disaster relief, insurance programs and subsidies for rebuilding damaged structures.

Local communities share in the costs because they depend upon the beaches to generate the tax revenues that flow from homeowners and tourism. In Virginia Beach, the cost of periodic replenishment represents about 10 percent of tax revenue from oceanfront tourism, Roehrs said. For communities like Virginia Beach and its waterfront strand to the south, Sandbridge, the sand is, quite simply, why these communities exist.

The projects in Virginia Beach and Ocean City were designed before Hurricane Sandy demolished homes, hotels and holiday dreams worth billions of dollars in New Jersey and New York coastal communities — and before billions of “hurricane relief dollars” were spent to rebuild beaches in many mid-Atlantic communities, including projects in Virginia Beach as well as Norfolk.

Some critics think that large federal subsidies for beach replenishment are unfair because coastal projects are funded in part by taxpayers — many living away from coasts — to help protect the beachside homes of a wealthy few. The federal funding formula and Corps rules for replenishment projects give more weight to communities with expensive real estate that would equate to higher losses than to locales with less valuable real estate.

Federal disaster relief — now amounting to more than $5 billion from Hurricane Sandy alone — makes it difficult for many coastal communities to face the true costs of coastal living, according to geologist Robert S. Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. The way to do this, he said, is to require that coastal communities internalize the costs and the risks. “We need to make coastal development a true market economy, rather than being propped up by federal subsidies.”

Young said that “refreshing” damaged beaches is simply not a long-term fix for a serious and rising problem. “I would never advocate that we tell people that it’s time for them to leave the coast,” Young said. “What I would advocate is that we change the federal incentives that keep them there.”

There is a growing willingness to state this uncomfortable truth. The National Research Council 2014 study, “Reducing Coastal Risk on the East and Gulf Coasts,” flatly states that the “lack of alignment of risk, reward, resources and responsibility as it relates to coastal risk management leads to inefficiencies and inappropriate incentives that serve to increase the nation’s exposure to risk.” The study recommends re-evaluating the Corps’ typical planning horizon and assessing all long-term costs and benefits — including social and environmental — associated with coastal risks.

The National Research Council calls for a robust national strategy to help guide states and localities in climate change adaptation, but the devil is in the details. While the report suggests one possible adaptation to recurrent flooding is to “develop strong, well-planned, shoreline retreat or relocation plans and programs,” other strategies promote retrofitting and protecting public infrastructure.

Borrowing Sand – at a cost

The 9-mile strand of clean sand along Virginia Beach’s boardwalk and shorefront neighborhoods is neither natural nor cheap.

Spikes in sand prices, resulting from demand from communities ravaged by hurricanes and Nor’easters, make project costs unpredictable for the feds and their local partners. “The most we’ve paid is a little over $8 dollars a cubic yard,” Roehrs said, “but if we’d had to buy sand after Hurricane Sandy, we would have paid as much as $15 a cubic yard.”

Supplies of sand can also be uncertain. The sand comes primarily from offshore sandbars, most of which have formed over millennia from erosional processes that have transformed upland rocks and sediment to sandy ocean bottom.

As the demand for beach-rebuilding sand has escalated, more mid-Atlantic states are reaching beyond the 3-mile state limit into federal waters to obtain it. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy and Mining and the U.S. Geological Survey are surveying these offshore resources on behalf of the states.

And sand resources – particularly the clean and fine-grain sand that summer beachgoers relish – are not infinite. The massive glacial deposits of offshore sand in the Long Island coastal region become increasingly limited as one travels farther south. “This ‘modern sand’ is a limited resource,” said Young, the geologist, “and the farther offshore one has to go to get it, the more expensive it becomes.”

But coastal sand mining is not without ecological impacts. “Coastal sand mining disrupts the near-shore ocean food by removing bottom-dwelling organisms,” said Gwynn Crichton, senior scientist for The Nature Conservancy, “and this can disturb shoal areas where marine life congregates.”

Using sand from other sources to rebuild beaches is fraught with other problems. Although benthic organisms in the surf zone can rebound with time, the composition and abundance of species there change when incoming sand grain characteristics are not closely matched with those of the replacement sand, according to Crichton. Migrating shorebirds, crabs and fish depend on these organisms, including the millions of coquina clams that ascend through the sand after every receding wave.

And while beach replenishment projects are seasonally restricted to limit impacts on nesting sea turtles, changes in beach-face geometry can prevent females access to safe nesting sites — and the composition of the sand itself may negatively impact sea turtle incubation rates.

Ironically, the language used to describe the process — nourishing the beach — suggests an improvement in beach health. But the sand that is “borrowed” from offshore sites generally does not return to these same sites — and the overall health of the ecosystem has been compromised.

National plan needed

It’s easy to forget that beaches are dynamic geologic structures, built up over millennia, constantly changing with seasonal cycles of wind, weather and tides because this is exactly what attracts people to them.

But climate change — and rising seas — are forcing people to take a longer view, one that Young hopes will lead to a long-term plan for coastal management.

“Right now, we are still essentially trying to hold every shoreline in place…that’s what beach nourishment is. We are doing it largely with public dollars, without asking…if we should, or why we should?

Young says spending billions of post-Hurricane Sandy federal dollars to rebuild costal communities — including dunes and beaches — results in wasting of millions of dollars in the absence of a national plan for coastal adaptation.

“We had a couple of quiet [hurricane] years after Sandy,” Young said. “One of these days we’re going to get a Katrina and Sandy back-to-back.” At some point, he warned, fiscal conservatives will get tired of paying for these projects.

There are signs of change at the federal level.

In January 2015, the Corps published its post-Sandy assessment, “The North Comprehensive Study,” and acknowledged that national flood insurance policies that transfer part of the cost of siting assets and communities in flood-prone areas to taxpayers makes consideration of the full range of strategies — including managed retreat — less possible.

Implementing a national vision for managing coastal risk, according to the National Research Council, is not for any single agency — or its policies — but will require federal leadership and collaboration at all levels of government to craft a “national vision that includes a long-term view and regional solutions.”

Virginia Beach has commissioned a detailed study on the cumulative impacts of sea level rise on the city and strategies for adaptation, in addition to beach replenishment. But lacking national vision — and planning — communities like Virginia Beach and Ocean City will continue to maintain — and nourish — their beaches.

And worrying about the price tag. “If we evaluated sea level rise and did the straight-line math,” Roehrs said, to estimate what it would take to adequately protect the shorelines and inland infrastructure, “we’d find out that it would take some ungodly amount, and we’d throw our hands up in despair.

“What keeps us up at night is knowing that there can always be a flooding event that is bigger than the one you've been able to prepare for,” Roehrs said.

The Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University tracks publicly funded beach replenishment projects at http://beachnourishment.wcu.edu/