DNREC gives state-of-beach report

Having chased away the morning’s blustery chill with hot coffee and warm food, members of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce were all ears when the topic of their March 3 breakfast meeting turned to the future of the area’s beaches.

With so much of the region’s commercial wellbeing based on its ability to draw tourism dollars, the health of the beaches in each of the coastal towns is a top priority for many local business owners.

So, those in attendance at the member meeting were eager for an update on beach replenishment issues from the state’s replenishment guru: Tony Pratt, administrator for the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC). In addition to business owners, the meeting was attended by officials from Bethany Beach and South Bethany.

Right off the bat, Pratt empathized with coastal residents, officials and business owners, noting that the process of performing major reconstruction of beaches was primarily a federal process, and therefore inherently complex and time-consuming.

Pratt outlined the steps involved in having a reconstruction project come to fruition, starting from a congressional resolution that authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to look into the possibility of reconstruction. The process then proceeds to a study of the issue, followed by further study of the feasibility of a project.

Should the project receive favorable evaluation, it can be authorized by Congress, and construction can then begin.

That’s exactly where the reconstruction project in Fenwick Island is in the process, Pratt said, with work to be started in August of 2005 and already contracted to be done. Construction in the Lewes project zone has been completed, and in the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach zone, it has already begun.

That established, and before tackling the stickier issue of the project in Bethany Beach and South Bethany, Pratt discussed the overall history of the area’s projects. Initial authorization was done from 1986 through 1988, he said, progressing to a study that identified three lower-shore project areas: Fenwick Island, Bethany Beach-South Bethany and Rehoboth-Dewey.

The coastal towns are interspersed between stretches of state-controlled beach, which Pratt said were regarded as already having a good dune system. The municipal beaches, however, were identified as needing help. Feasibility studies progressed in 1995, 1996 and 1998, with budget studies in 2000 before the projects were officially authorized.

They were authorized under the biennial Water Resources Development Act, which Pratt noted generally authorizes the projects for 50 years. During that period, the Corps is committed to maintaining the reconstructed beaches against the sort of detrimental forces that might naturally be expected in that area, conducting periodic replenishment approximately every three years.

That 50-year clock starts when the first sand is pumped onto the beach, Pratt said.

That’s already happened in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach. The remaining coastal towns are in intervening segments in the process between authorization and actual construction, Pratt explained.

Both the Fenwick Island and Bethany-South Bethany projects have completed their design phase. But that is where the projects’ statuses diverge.In Fenwick Island, the process is up to the point where construction agreements are being made.

While that process took more than two years to do in the northern towns, Pratt said, the estimated time for construction agreements is now down to some seven or eight weeks, thanks to the use of the same attorneys involved in those previous projects (reducing legal wrangling over details of language).

The agreements that need to be drafted include everything from the overarching project construction agreement (PCA) to real estate acquisitions and/or easements that allow the Corps to cross private property to access the beach.

In the case of Fenwick Island, that also includes agreements with the state of Maryland to allow the new sand in Fenwick Island to be tapered to meet the existing beach in neighboring Ocean City.

All that legal and paper work must be done before the real construction can start.

Pratt said that element of the project is on track in Fenwick Island, with no reason to expect any problems.

Things in Bethany Beach and South Bethany are a slightly different story. The project for two towns is hung up just after the design phase, with the PCA draft in its early stages but federal funding for remaining work on the contract phase and actual construction being left at the whims of presidential budget requests and annual budget wrangling within Congress.

“You’re right on the doorstep of going into that federal room we all want to be in,” Pratt told the businesspeople.

Bethany Beach and South Bethany are thus at the mercy of a federal budgeting process that is often highly political and routinely stalls until October of each year, or later. The process can also be extended by continuing resolutions — which reached into November in 2004’s budget discussions.

But if the two towns are able to have federal funding for the project restored, the payoff will be tremendous. Pratt had the visuals to prove it, showing historical photographs of the area’s beaches, stretching back to 1948.

An image of Fenwick Island from that year shows a wide beach with a large dune in front of the beachfront homes. South Bethany, meanwhile, sports only a few houses, while North Bethany had no development at all.

Things had changed significantly by 1961, even prior to the legendary 1962 storm. A photograph of South Bethany shows homes behind a small due and a large bulkhead, the remnants of which are still seen occasionally on the town’s beach, thanks to continued erosion.

But that 1961 photograph is more than a trip back to the future for the town’s residents, according to Pratt. It could be a near vision of the future.

“If all goes right, two years from now you could see a bigger dune line than this picture shows from 1961,” Pratt said.

He went on to show the devastating erosion in Fenwick Island after 1961, and focused between 1973 and 1987. A photograph from 1973 shows erosion of the dunes, with a broken boardwalk hanging in mid-air some yards above a still-wide beach.

From 1981 to 1985, he said, the town saw “unprecedented erosion,” thanks in part to Hurricane Gloria, with the dune essentially “wiped out” and barely holding on. By 1988, the first state project on the Fenwick Island beach restored some of the lost sand. It was then followed by a federal project.

Even more beneficial was 1997’s reconstruction project in Ocean City, which actually benefited its northern neighbor by restoring sand to the overall ocean system, sending sand north in natural ocean flows and reversing the erosive trend, if temporarily.

By 2004, between state efforts and unintentional contributions from Ocean City, the beach of Fenwick Island was relatively wide again, Pratt said. “If you ignored the intervening years between 1973 and 2004,” he acknowledged, “you might think we don’t have much of a problem.”

But, he declared, there has been an impact on the area’s pocketbooks of that beach lost to erosion between 1948 and the present.

“People expect a wide beach. They’re accustomed to a certain amount of space per person,” he explained. Visitors coming to the area are looking for a “valuable social experience,” he said, whether they are at the beach for a day or a week. And particularly when the come to the Delaware shore, he said, they’re looking for an affordable experience, a value for their hard-earned dollar.

Reduced beach space becomes unpleasant, he said. And if the beach is allowed to deteriorate, the recreational space becomes limited, reducing the value of the experience for visitors and property owners alike.

Pratt referred to the summer of 1988, calling to mind a characteristic photograph of then-Bethany Beach Mayor Bob Parsons seeking out space for his beach chair between the town’s boardwalk and the ocean waters — and not finding an inch of dry land. South Bethany — as is often the case in recent winters — had water underneath the beachfront homes.

That’s a vision Pratt said would be very much changed as a result of a so-called 50-year reconstruction for the beaches in the two towns. Bethany Beach, he said, will sport a wide dune and beach in front of its boardwalk. That would be tapered to the existing beach level in Sea Colony and resume in a wide dune and beach in South Bethany, again tapered as the town’s borders join with the state park.

(Sea Colony, Pratt said, is already a sort of model beach for the area, with “a beautiful wide beach with a dune” that is well stabilized. Its buildings — all behind the dunes — are protected and don’t themselves contribute to erosion. Private Middlesex Beach he deemed “halfway there,” somewhat eroded but not enough to truly need reconstruction.)

Fenwick Island’s dunes will be widened, with the widened stretch of beach again being tapered to meet that in Ocean City, Pratt said.

That project is far enough into the pipeline that federal funding is considered safe. But the same cannot be said of Bethany Beach and South Bethany, Pratt said. Annual federal funding usually comes from the water and energy development bill, with state funding (that 35 percent of the total) coming from an annual bond bill and accommodations revenue taxes.

For the 13th year, Pratt said, the executive branch of the federal government has proposed a budget with significantly reduced or nonexistent funding for beach replenishment projects. For the 2006 fiscal year, that’s some $43 million nationwide, but only $30,000 for projects in the whole of Delaware.

Pratt said he feels the realistic need for annual funding for reconstruction projects nationwide is in the neighborhood of $125 to $150 million, approximately triple the funding requested by President George W. Bush for this year.

Considering the funds are allotted through the Department of Defense, which oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, Pratt said he felt the comparison to the cost for a jet fighter was apt.

The estimated cost to the United States Air Force for Lockheed Martin’s F-22 fighter is $152 million — each. That’s slightly more than the amount Pratt said is needed for beach replenishment nationwide, equivalent to the cost of a single fighter.

The budget request for the 2006 fiscal year for the entire Defense Department is $419.3 billion, approximately a 5 percent increase over 2005. That total is 2,800 times Pratt’s target beach replenishment funding for the nation, which would in turn represent only the equivalent of 3.6 percent of the requested funding for the Department of Defense. A small percentage of that would easily fund the Delaware projects.

Pratt noted that the estimated cost for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project was said to be $23 million in 2003, estimated at $25 million now. The Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach project was estimated to cost $14.23 million in 2000 but was completed for only $10 million. It’s one-sixth of a jet fighter, but the impact of that kind of funding on the area is tremendous, Pratt said.

“This is the biggest project we will ever see,” he said of the pending reconstruction, “and it’s worth fighting for.”

That fight will largely take place on Capital Hill, with input from lobbying groups, legislators and their constituents. And that’s where things can get truly ugly.

Part of the limited federal budget requests for such projects may be political in nature, Pratt said, with the executive branch putting pressure on Congress to take the heat for running up a bigger deficit by funding programs cut in the president’s budget request. Legislators will have to deal with that concern, as well as partisan and geographic wrangling over who gets what.

That can result in a compromise budget bringing figures from both houses of Congress together, or it can result in one of those ongoing continuing resolutions that provides temporary funding at the previous year’s levels. That possibility could be damaging for the Delaware projects, providing little or no federal funding as they gear up for construction.

That could mean stalled projects, halted mid-stream as funding dries up. It would be a potential nightmare for seasonal beach economies that count on downtime to complete such projects.

Even when the funding is provided despite presidential requests for cuts, Pratt said, the numbers contained in the Senate and House versions of the budget have to be watched carefully to make sure that compromise amounts don’t leave particular projects in the lurch. Such compromise changes can help or hurt a given project, Pratt said.

And once all the congressional work is done, compromises ironed out, it is still left for the president to sign the final budget that comes back to him from the legislative bodies.

Were the worst to happen and federal funding was not granted or much delayed, there are two benchmarks for the remaining two projects in the states.

In Fenwick Island, notice to proceed with construction is due to the project’s contractor in June. More vitally, the Bethany-South Bethany project requires $5 million in the 2006 fiscal year to proceed with a planned October 2006 construction start. (The remainder of the funding would be needed in the 2007 federal fiscal year budget and would again have to be fought for.)

Pratt outlined a series of judicious next steps for the coastal towns and their residents: 1) work with Congress to secure the 2006 fiscal year appropriations needed for the projects; 2) follow through with the building of the Bethany-South Bethany project, as well as the Fenwick Island project; and 3) synchronize the replenishment process in each of the Delaware projects areas and neighboring Ocean City, Md., to reduce the future costs of replenishment.

There, Pratt dropped his watchword for beach replenishment issues: regional sediment management (RSM). Pratt said the move toward regional coordination is a new thing, working to break through the artificial barriers of state borders and Corps project zones to address erosion and replenishment on a natural, system-wide basis.

Efforts toward RSM could play an important part in long-term protection of beaches and beach property, he said, while providing the most efficient and realistic model for replenishment efforts.

Having listened to the presentation for a second time in two days (the first the day prior at a meeting of coastal officials), Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh said he was feeling “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for reconstruction of the beach in his town.

Even if efforts toward federal funding in the 2006 fiscal year were to fail, Walsh said, the town still has a “fallback point” in its ability to piggyback an emergency replenishment project on the Fenwick Island project, with funding from the state.

But area officials are not sitting on their laurels. They are still working fervently to obtain federal funding for the massive 50-year project. That’s the preferred option for local and state officials, as it provides a 65-35 cost share between the federal government and the state, as well as a probably guarantee for maintenance over 50 years.

Among the efforts planned by the officials of Delaware’s coastal towns in the coming months is a trip to Washington, D.C., on March 15, to discuss replenishment issues with the state’s representatives to the U.S. Congress.

Walsh also noted that recent discussions about the mutual interests of the coastal towns and the Sea Colony community in replenishment had borne fruit. Walsh said the community’s board of directors had decided to send letters to its approximately 2,200 owners requesting congressional support for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project.

With only three representatives in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the ability of Delaware residents to lobby the entirety of the legislative bodies is decidedly limited. But coastal officials recognized that the wider ownership base of their neighboring private community might provide additional pull in other quarters.

The hope is that a Sea Colony property owner residing in Maryland or Pennsylvania, for example, will work to protect their investment in Delaware by lobbying their congressional delegation on behalf of the neighboring beaches. That goes right back to Pratt’s emphasis on the regional effects of sand movement and the regional interests it creates.

Bethany Beach Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead noted that the town — now together with South Bethany — is still working with beach replenishment consultants Marlowe & Company to lobby Congress to restore federal funding for the project. “We’re doing all we can. We’re keeping their feet to the fire,” she said.