Weeks left in replenishment funding wait

It’s really in the hands of mechanics that will play out over the next 14 to 21 days.” Thus came the latest word from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) beach guru Tony Pratt on the “expected” Bethany Beach-South Bethany beach reconstruction project that local officials and property owners have been biting their nails over for years.

Coastal Point • M. PATRICIA TITUS: DNREC's Tony Pratt discusses beach replenishment efforts.Coastal Point • M. PATRICIA TITUS:
DNREC's Tony Pratt discusses beach replenishment efforts.
“This is Christmas, folks,” Pratt told officials and property owners from both towns at a meeting in Bethany on Feb. 9. “We made the list. Let’s see what Santa does.”

While Pratt was referring there to a wish list from the two coastal Delaware towns, the program administrator for DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section might as well have been referring to the list of projects the Philadelphia division office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has filed with its headquarters in anticipation of a final shot of funding under the 2007 federal fiscal year.

The Bethany-South Bethany project has been included atop the Philadelphia section’s “work plan” — a list of Corps civil-works projects that are ready to begin construction, Pratt said. That place of priority could be key for needed federal funding to get the project going in the near future.

With a series of final budget bills for the 2007 fiscal year abandoned after the change of Congressional control to the Democrats in November 2006, the federal government has been — and is expected to continue to be — funded under a continuing resolution that maintains funding for federal agencies at roughly the 2006-fiscal-year level.

Earmarks for specific projects are expected to be eliminated for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. So, the Delaware project will be reliant upon the anticipated ability under the continuing resolution for the Corps to self-determine how its own final budget figure will be disbursed.

As it stands, the project has some $3 million in the bank from the 2006 fiscal year and its earmarks, plus roughly $1.5 million in state funds from the 35 percent state cost-share in the project. Of the final total from the roughly $25 million needed, there is some $14 million in federal funding needed to get the project finally under way. So that will be the target figure state and local officials will be eyeballing in a final Corps budget for the rest of the fiscal year.

That’s a possibility — though not guaranteed — if the Philadelphia section’s civil-works budget is high enough.

Local officials optimistic but guarded

It was that news from Pratt regarding Corps funding priorities and likely Corps control over its own budget for the remainder of the fiscal year that had local officials comparatively optimistic this week.

“It’s the best news we’ve had in a long time,” said South Bethany Town Councilman Richard Ronan on Friday night, though he still sounded a note of caution. “But don’t get too excited,” he interjected.

South Bethany Town Councilwoman Marge Gassinger was likewise putting the news in the positive column that evening. “If they would give enough money for beach replenishment to the Philadelphia office, I think we’ve got it,” she said.

“We don’t want to get people’s hopes up,” South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne warned.

Still, Jayne said he and Bethany Beach Mayor Carol Olmstead had already set a meeting with the Corps at the Philadelphia division’s headquarters for Feb. 21, when they would meet with Corps officials and Pratt to see where the project stands.

“It looks encouraging, but there are no guarantees,” Jayne concluded Friday.

While officials were looking toward the Corps budget decisions for the remainder of the 2007 fiscal year, they also have in the back of their minds the potential source of funding under the new 2008-fiscal-year.

Bethany Beach Town Council Member Tracy Mulligan asked Pratt on Feb. 9 if the town and its citizens should be working on strategies to help encourage federal funding. Pratt said the ball for 2007 was basically in the Corps’ court, but if funding for the full project was not forthcoming under that budget, the town could begin to look ahead to 2008 budget talks, when additional work to raise support beyond locals and the Delaware legislative delegation might prove useful.

President George W. Bush’s budget proposal for 2008 was released earlier this month and, as usual, included no funding for beach reconstruction projects. Pratt said opposition to federal funding of such projects from inside the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — and from one OMB official in particular — was the key roadblock in preventing the projects from getting funded.

Pratt refused to identify that official, but Bethany property owner Dan Costello noted that anyone with influence over OMB Director Rob Portman would be well-advised to use it if they wanted to break the roadblock at the executive end.

The OMB has typically objected to the percentages of the state-federal cost share of such projects, but when offered a more equal percentage again did not include funding for them in the president’s budget. Pratt emphasized that the comparatively tiny amount of funding needed for beach replenishment nationwide — just an estimate 170 million per year — was beneath the concern of most of those inside the White House itself.

The DNREC official said that the OMB also had a practice of eliminating funding for programs that it knew Congress would support, recognizing that they would add funding back in and then have to take the blame for any budget item that pushed the budget past the balance point. But Pratt remained focused on 2007 for now, with some optimism, as just weeks remained in the wait for a verdict.

Potential start after Labor Day 2007

Pratt said he had requested the Corps not consider starting the construction of the project until after Labor Day of 2007, even if the full funding were forthcoming, so as not to disturb the coast’s summer season. There was simply not enough time to get substantial work done prior to Memorial Day, he said.

Preparatory activities, such as moving in a dredge, laying pipe and even bringing pipe onshore might take place before Labor Day, Pratt said of his request to the Corps, but no actual construction would happen.

Just a few handfuls of needed easements to permit the project activity are outstanding, Pratt said, describing the process as typically one where a few held out until the state was ready to go to court in condemnation proceedings. Paralleling it with the looming threat of the shark of “Jaws” movie fame, he said past holdouts had always relented once they realized the project really was imminent.

Talk of actually getting equipment into the area was a notable step ahead for most, again supporting the air of optimism and perception of good news under Congress’ continuing resolution for the remainder of 2007.

“If something goes wrong,” Pratt promised, “I’ll be right back here again in two weeks.”

It was a statement of concern and support that might have been needed, as local property owners have become increasingly concerned about the narrowing beach and the potential of damaging nor’easters over this fall and winter. Indeed, the area was dealing with just such a storm on Wednesday, as the Coastal Point went to press.

Pratt again urged patience with the federal funding process, saying that while a municipality could choose to pay more than its share — which is nothing, under existing practice — or the state to take on more than 35 percent of the costs, that it was likely that some money would be coming to the project in the 2007 funding, and perhaps more in 2008, if full funding wasn’t granted under 2008.

“The Army Corps has begged to be funded this way for a long time,” Pratt said of the ability to make its own fiscal priorities. “I’m interested to see how they will handle it now that they do.”

Pratt said a decision on changes to the scope or scale of the project, or about increased state or local funding, would be made as part of a collective process involving state, local and Corps officials, if the project weren’t fully funded in 2007 or 2008. That’s a discussion that has been ongoing for almost a year now, he said.

He refused to conjecture as to what that decision might be if funding were short for 2007. “I wouldn’t want to go off [wild] guessing at the last moment,” he said. “We’re tantalizingly close to knowing what will be happening. I will go to Philadelphia myself to see what’s happening,” he promised of the coming weeks.

Plan calls for 45 feet of sand, plus dune and shore

Looking ahead to the actual project, Pratt answered questions about the beaches’ existing groins — called jetties by most beachgoers — saying the practice of the sand-trapping mechanisms had fallen out of favor in recent years and hadn’t been studied directly as a positive or negative factor in keeping sand on the beach.

Pratt said that up-beach loss of sand due to the groins holding back sands from downstream hadn’t been an original concern when they were installed, as much north of the two towns was uninhabited at the time. He said the current plan called for them to be buried — 45 feet of sand eastward of existing beachfront homes, fronted by a new dune and then a new beach.

Describing the planned long-term future of the project, Pratt noted the 50-year commitment of the Corps to maintenance — an issue that has also been the focus of opposition at the OMB and elsewhere. Pratt said the usual maintenance schedule for the completed beach would be new sand added every three to four years, though nearby Ocean City, Md., had found that the longer side of that period was more accurate, with better sand retention than expected from the project constructed in 1988.

Pratt said the state was already seeking the federal portion of some replenishment funds for Rehoboth Beach, which is heading into its third year after similar reconstruction of that beach. Those funds would be sought under the 2008-fiscal-year budget.

He also explained that any major single-storm damage to the reconstructed beach would fall under the domain of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), rather than forcing the towns to start over with a new reconstruction project. The term then would be “restoration,” with the state’s high standard of tracking its beaches paying off in proof of how much damage had been done.

Pratt said the nationally employed “Delaware standard” had been set by the state after the 1992 nor’easter that did so much damage along the coast.

The DNREC official was also full of reassurance for the diminished beach in the towns now, or under future, lesser, storm damage.

“Few storms take away sand completely,” he said. “I’ve never witnessed one that did.” He noted that even the infamous 1962 storm that did so much destruction to houses along the ocean had left its missing sand in a 200-foot-wide berm that could be seen afterward right off the coast. The sand eventually makes its way back onto the shore, he said.

It was a bit of comfort, if a slightly cold one, to those who fear that the 2006-2007 winter storm season could take a severe toll before the new beach is constructed. But Pratt’s news regarding Corps funding and priorities was just the kind of shot in the arm that local officials and citizens had been looking for after two devastating fall nor’easters.

The wait may nearly be over, with the potential just over the horizon for the towns’ hoped-for beach project to finally be funded and begun. Word of how soon such a project might start, or whether the outlook will be for funding under 2008, is expected now inside of two weeks.