Word on beach funding expected by Friday

Tony Pratt, program administrator of the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), told the Coastal Point on March 8 that he was anticipating word this week on the final elements needed for the long-anticipated Bethany Beach-South Bethany beach reconstruction project to finally begin.

Pratt said he expected to get word by the end of the day on March 15, at which point disputes between the apparent intent of legislators and the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 2007-fiscal-year funding were due to be ironed out.

Local officials have been waiting for that word for weeks, as the U.S. Congress passed a continuing resolution that set funding levels for federal agencies at roughly the same levels as the 2006 fiscal year, in absence of a final series of appropriations acts that might have provided direct funding to the local replenishment projects.

Instead, the decision on how to distribute its annual funding allotment was ostensibly handed off to the powers-that-be at the Corps, with “work plans” from individual Corps districts — such as the Philadelphia district that oversees the Delaware shore — being evaluated by top brass as to how much each office would receive for civil projects and whether any prohibitions on funding would be given.

That has left local officials and citizens doubly eager to hear that final word, as it essentially cleared the way for the Corps’ Philadelphia office to provide the entire remaining portion of federal funding needed to start and complete the project, should they so wish, after years of minimal federal funding that has been banked for the project to start once the final needed amount was in and therefore delayed the project over what was originally hoped.

But a meeting between Pratt, beach lobbyist Paul Ordal of Marlowe & Co., Bethany Beach Mayor Carol Olmstead, South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne and Corps officials in Philadelphia, originally scheduled for the third week of February, has been postponed twice and then canceled, as the Corps has endeavored to work out the issues with the OMB.

“I know what’s happening,” Pratt said March 8, explaining that, with the Corps having control over its funding total for the year, the OMB had asserted its control over the Corps as part of the government’s executive branch, in an effort to prevent any of the Corps’ 2007 funding from going to beach renourishment or to planning work on future reconstruction projects.

There, Pratt drew a precise line, emphasizing that “renourishment” refers to the periodic renourishment of beaches that have already been reconstructed or have yet to make it to the construction phase of beach reconstruction.

That would not include the Bethany-South Bethany project, which is at the beginning of the construction phase of a full beach reconstruction. It would, however, include the planned periodic renourishment of the beaches in Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Lewes, which were ready to pursue funding for the anticipated maintenance work expected to be needed every three to four years to keep up the newly reconstructed beaches.

OMB opposition holds, delays announcement

While such renourishment may or may not be included in funding under the 2008-fiscal-year federal budget, Pratt said the OMB was adamant that no such projects be funded under the 2007 lump-sum funding from the continuing resolution. That, he said, was in contrast to some of those on Capital Hill, who had believed some specific project areas would be granted funding for the smaller periodic replenishment under the 2007 resolution.

“Congress expected that some renourishment projects would be included in the ’07 funding,” he noted.

Pratt said the resulting tussle between the OMB and Corps has been playing out in recent weeks, delaying what might be a final determination of complete funding for the Bethany-South Bethany beach reconstruction. He said the OMB had basically mandated that the Corps make a decision that would eliminate those types of projects from funding from the 2007 amount, saying essentially that if the Corps didn’t do so, the OMB would make the decision for them.

The Bethany-South Bethany project, while not directly affected by the dispute, has been caught up in the proverbial crossfire, delaying the word on funding, as well as the work that will begin to prepare for actual construction when — and if — full funding is granted.

Pratt has repeatedly said that the project is at the top of the Philadelphia Corp’s list of civil projects for the fiscal year, raising expectations that dredges will be brought into the area in late August or early September. But local officials and citizens have continued to hold their breath on the subject, as a result of the OMB’s continued opposition to federal funding of renourishment.

That waiting was expected to come to an end by this Thursday, after Coastal Point press time, when officials and beachgoers alike could finally get the word of an improved beach and better protection for the towns from storms like the one that destroyed property, changed the shape of the coastline and took seven lives in 1962.