Negotiating beach nourishment benefits and costs

Jonathan Bingham is working on his Master of Science degree in Coastal and Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he also received his Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences.   He has lived in Wilmington for almost a decade. Jonathan began his career project management branch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington, NC, and quickly became involved in Federal navigation, coastal storm damage reduction, and environmental restoration projects across coastal North Carolina. His background and experience, in the sciences and involvement in complex policies and politics, ignited his interest in the coastal policy field. 

Coastal storm damage reduction project at Carolina Beach, NC undergoing its final federally funded periodic nourishment in April 2016.
Beaches – many parties have an interest in them.  Beachfront homeowners, the summertime tourist, businesses that make a living from beachgoers, outdoorsy folks, tax collectors, and even those people who bike to the beach because they’d rather not fight for parking (especially this guy right here). 

Since the 1960s, our NC beach towns have grown substantially.  Today, multi-million dollar properties fill the coastline and tourism is a cornerstone of our local and national economy. This valuable development exists in areas vulnerable to flooding and storm damage.  Because of this modern day beach-lifestyle “baggage,” someone has to pay to strategically develop and protect beach communities from storm damages.

The federal government invested in multiple programs through different federal agencies as a means to protect, reduce, and enable community development in these areas. In the 1960s, the federal government started investing in Coastal Storm Damage Reduction (AKA beach nourishment) projects to protect and reduce damages at beaches, and the communities have become highly dependent on beach nourishment projects for their livelihood. I expect a major shift in federal funding and coastal policies in the near future, as the federal government is tightening budgets and politically beginning to slip out of this costly, never-ending business.

The federal government decided to enter into the business of protecting citizens and property from flood damages in 1936 (Flood Control Act), following serious flooding on the Mississippi River in the 1920’s and 1930’s that brought the problem to the national spotlight. 

It wasn’t long before the government began protecting beach communities from the serious flooding associated with hurricanes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implements the federal government’s coastal storm damage reduction program. These pre-disaster mitigation actions are very efficient at reducing storm damages, when beach nourishment is consistently maintained. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), acting under the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, fully supports preserving, protecting, developing, restoring and enhancing, the Nation's resources within the coastal zone. Later, in 1982 Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resources Act in order to curb any further development using federal expenditures and financial assistance. This act, enforced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), realized that the federal government has historically subsidized and encouraged development, such as federal flood insurance, on coastal barriers, resulting in threats to human life, health, and property; the loss of natural resources; and the expenditure of millions of tax dollars each year.

There’s a disconnect happening between federal agencies, and conflicting missions cloud the overall goal of the federal government. The questions at hand are: what should the federal government’s pre-disaster stake in coastal development be? Then, does the existing legislation meet the goal? I chose to look at the protection portion of a federal coastal investment policy under the Corps of Engineers, and build a recommendation that uses our current state of development, trends and projections in order to improve the program for all stakeholders involved (federal and local taxpayers, home-owners, tourists, business owners, etc.).

Coastal storm events causing billion-dollar losses and total costs associated
with the storms (2013 dollars) Source: NRC 2014
There are limits to how nourishment project costs and benefits are calculated.   This alters the degree of justification and importance reported to Congress.   On top of that, the trends indicate fiscal responsibilities are shifting away from the federal government and towards the beach communities, likely because of shifting federal budget priorities. However, because of a decrease in the Corps’ funding for coastal storm damage reduction projects, trends demonstrate that storm impact costs are rising, such as: higher losses and post-storm damage costs, and a higher percentage of federal aid to cover these costs. 

Percentage of federal aid through the years following major hurricanes
Source: Michel-Kerjan 2013
I aim to meet policy goals such as: increase the reduction of flood damages to property and infrastructure, increase coastal emergency safety and reduction in loss of life, decrease federal emergency declarations, reduce federal expenditures towards managing coastal risk, and develop an improved benefit-cost analysis, which includes real risks and actual benefits. After an alternatives analysis, I found that restructuring the Corps’ program with updated Congressional legislation would best address the issues surrounding the protection portion of a federal coastal investment policy. In seeking coastal resiliency for the future, a reduction of risk to federal taxpayers, and a true benefit-cost analysis, I saw the need to reduce the federal government’s cost-share in the CSDR program and to establish consistent federal values across multiple agencies for pre-disaster mitigation actions. These recommended actions support a reformed federal coastal investment strategy, with consistently funded and supported policies and programs, in order to lessen overall costs for all parties involved with coastal living.

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