Beach projects wait on Senate action

It’s déjà vu all over again for officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany, as far as the battle for federal beach replenishment dollars goes.

Once again this year, President George W. Bush provided no federal funding for the planned Bethany-South Bethany beach reconstruction in his annual budget proposal, following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton in seeking to curtail federal funding for such projects altogether.

And once again, the U.S. House of Representatives included not a penny of funding for the project in the annual Energy and Water Appropriations Bill (HR 5427) developed by that body this spring and passed by the House on a 404-20 vote May 24. (Rep. Mike Castle voted in favor of the bill.)

As happened last year, that bill has now been received in the U.S. Senate for consideration of a matching measure. It was read twice, as is customary, and referred to the Senate Committee on Appropriations, where it — and local officials — now awaits action.

It was in the Senate last year that funding for the two-town project was restored, at approximately $4 million — slightly less than had been hoped for but a welcome step after the non-funding from the House. The addition of funding on the Senate side pushed a compromise during the conference phase of passing the appropriations bill, resulting in some $3.3 million for the project.

That figure was considerably short of the estimated $27 million needed to complete the project — especially in light of new regulations imposed beginning with the 2005 bill that eliminated continuing contracts for the Army Corps of Engineers. Instead of moving ahead with a token amount, the Corps is focusing on holding onto funding from year to year, to essentially save up enough federal funding to finally sign a contract and get the construction going.

That means state and local officials are hoping for at least an estimated $14 million for the project in this year’s federal budget, with a target of starting construction in the fall. If less than that is provided, Corps and Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) officials said they would have to re-evaluate the project and consider whether to wait until 2007, scale back the project for the short term or make other adjustments to stretch the funds that are provided.

Their decision will hinge on the exact amount the federal government provides in the 2007 fiscal-year budget, which will in turn be greatly determined by the amount allotted in the Senate version of the appropriations bill and the likely compromise figure ironed out in conference committee, jointly between House and Senate members.

Officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany are encouraging property owners, residents and visitors alike to lobby their Congressional representatives to fully fund the project so that it can, they hope, finally get under way in the fall.

Though wave action helped build the beaches this spring rather than break them down, they have continued to dwindle in width. Bethany Beach officials took no chances, scheduling Fourth of July fireworks to be fired from a barge, instead of the beach. Last year, they were forced at the last moment to bring in a barge for the display after early-summer storms narrowed the strand to an unsafe width.

As it stands, HR 5427 provides no funding for any Delaware beach project (all other major sections of public beach due for reconstruction have now been completed) and just $60,000 for the construction phase of a project on the Delaware Bay (Bush’s budget also provided $60,000 for that project, but for operation and maintenance).

South Carolina, Texas and North Carolina also received no beach funding in the bill, while approximately $2 million each was earmarked for projects in Georgia and California. Amounts between $10 million and $20 million were earmarked for Illinois, New York, Virginia, New Jersey and Florida.

The president’s funding request for all beach studies and construction projects for the 2007 fiscal year is just $46.46 million – 64 percent lower than the amount provided in the final 2006 fiscal-year appropriations bill. HR 5427, by comparison, provides $80.911 million for such projects in the coming fiscal year — 34 percent lower than what was passed in the final 2006 fiscal-year budget.

Apart from the handful of individual projects in those other states, the exception to the extreme cuts in beach funding is a $32 million fund the president and Congress established after the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast and the major hurricanes that impacted the Florida coast last year. That fund is set aside specifically to deal with coastal “emergencies.”