Carper, Castle survey local beaches

Elected officials on the local and national level joined with representatives of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week to celebrate the success of one beach project and to throw their collective weight behind another.

Coastal Point • M. PATRICIA TITUS: Lt. Col. Robert J. Ruch, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, discusses local beach replenishment projects on the Bethany Beach boardwalk, while being flanked by DNREC’s Tony Pratt, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Mike Castle.Coastal Point • M. PATRICIA TITUS
Lt. Col. Robert J. Ruch, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, discusses local beach replenishment projects on the Bethany Beach boardwalk, while being flanked by DNREC’s Tony Pratt, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Mike Castle.
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and U.S. Rep Mike Castle arrived in Fenwick Island on Monday, a blustery late-spring day, to survey the completed work on the town’s reconstructed shoreline. Their praise was heavy for all those involved in the state’s completed beach projects.

“This project came about as a result of us working with state and local officials, and the Army Corps of Engineers,” Carper emphasized. “When we work together as a team, we can get a lot done.”

Indeed, like Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach to the north, the beach in Fenwick Island now sports a wide expanse of sand, a sizable dune and a growing planting of stabilizing dune grasses, thanks to federal and state funding for the project, which was completed in the fall and winter of 2005. DNREC beach guru Tony Pratt pointed out to the legislators where the town’s former dune line was — now the very back of the reconstructed dune.

Fenwick Island Mayor Peter Frederick, in attendance along with Beach Commissioner and Councilman Theo Brans, said with pride, “You’re looking at the most beautiful beach in Delaware.” He also noted the work of replenishment contractors Bean-Stuyvesant, who he said had suffered devastation to their own homes from Hurricane Katrina and had nonetheless stayed in Fenwick Island to continue work on the Delaware beach.

Carper emphasized that the beach replenishment projects serve not just to allow people to enjoy the beach but to protect homes and businesses in the coastal towns, as well as the major north-south thoroughfare that is Coastal Highway.

“This will attract a lot of people,” Castle added of the completed Fenwick Island project. “This kind of project makes a huge difference.”

Castle also noted the work of local officials in pursuit of the funding for Fenwick Island’s major replenishment. He said they were regularly in attendance at visits to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach reconstruction project as it was under way, ready to ask, “Where’s our beach?”

Frederick offered Castle and Carper each a Fenwick Island ball cap, to which Carper replied, “We take our hats off to all who were part of this.”

It was a picture of contrasts a few minutes later and a few miles to the north, as Carper and Castle surveyed a high-tide mark that clearly showed erosion undermining the multi-million-dollar beachfront homes on the edge of South Bethany’s Ocean Drive, as well as the narrow strand of beach left even at low tide.

That threat looms over property owners in the town, as well as seasonal visitors who have — some for a half-century or more — made a summer tradition of visiting the area’s beaches. Their hopes focus on obtaining federal funding for a reconstruction project along the same lines as the successful example they had just left in Fenwick Island.

“We hope this beach will soon extend 200 feet-plus farther eastward,” Carper said. “But it will take a good deal more money than the project we just saw in Fenwick Island,” he noted. Indeed, some $27 million is the estimated price tag for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project area to undergo a similar major reconstruction.

With $3.3 million in federal funding allocated for beach reconstruction in that project area in the 2006 fiscal-year budget, Carper and Castle, as well as state and local officials, have focused on the 2007 federal budget and hopes for some $14.4 million in additional federal funding to carry the project into actual construction.

But both legislators were loathe to make promises on getting that funding allocated in its entirety this coming year.

“Money is tight this year,” Carper emphasized, while Castle later noted the same emphasis on fiscal conservation. “This is not going to be a very easy year to get money,” Castle said, “unless you’re fighting a war or dealing with a Katrina.”

But the long-term allocation of funds sufficient to complete the project seems to be a more comfortable bet, for the legislators and others working to secure the federal funding.

Noting that the home in front of which they stood was offered for sale, Carper predicted, “It will be worth 50 percent more when this project is done.” Castle likewise remarked on the draw of the beach for those seeking recreational opportunities in the region, noting the ability of a reconstructed beach to draw more visitors and investors for a major factor in the state’s economy.

In neighboring Bethany Beach — where bandstand renovations are in full swing but high tide brings ocean water under the boardwalk — heavy northeast winds ripped the waves into a frenzy as the legislators spoke about the future of the joint Bethany Beach-South Bethany project area and the import of the beach.

“Thank you for inviting us to look at a very small beach,” Carper said with a note of wry humor to the assembled council members, including Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh, Secretary-Treasurer Tony McClenny, Jerry Dorfman, Harold Steele and Wayne Fuller, as well as South Bethany Councilwoman Marge Gassinger.

“We’ve seen what can happen,” Castle said optimistically, referencing the completed projects in Fenwick Island and to the north.

In fact, the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach restoration was recently honored as one of six 2006 Top Restored Beaches in the nation by the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. The restoration of 2.5 miles of coast just south of the Delaware Bay was completed in September 2005 with $11.6 million in federal funds and $6.3 million from the state.

“I, for one, feel very strongly about this issue,” Castle said. “It’s important not just to the rental economy, but to the construction trades, shops and others businesses in the area.”

Castle recalled visiting the Delaware shore some 20 or 30 years prior, when, on a Monday morning, streets were largely deserted and traffic all but absent. He noted the contrast with that Monday morning in early May, saying, “This is where people are living now. And one thing that brings them here is the recreational opportunity that the beach provides.”

However, for Lt. Col. Robert J. Ruch, commander and district engineer of the Corps’ Philadelphia district, those concerns of property values, recreational opportunities and business factors — while real — simply aren’t part of his job.

Ruch, who oversaw all the Delaware beach reconstruction projects completed in recent years, later explained that the Corps cost-efficiency ratios that determine federal funding priorities don’t figure in economic impacts such as tourism and property values. Instead, they focus solely on prevention of storm damage and the damage to infrastructure that would result if hurricanes and other storms hit an area where beaches are not reconstructed.

Carper recognized the threat as well.

“I hope no Hurricane Katrina will hit here or anywhere else this year,” he said. “Delaware has been lucky. But we need to be better prepared if a hurricane was to come.”

“If a hurricane came here this summer,” he said, alluding to possible fall 2006 timetables for reconstruction of the beaches in the two towns, “we’d be up the creek.”

Bethany Beach Town Council Member Harold Steele also noted the potential for devastation in speaking to Ruch. “With Katrina, they found that the beaches that had been reconstructed were the ones that held up,” Steele reminded the Corps’ regional head. “It’s ‘Pay me now or pay me later.’”

Ruch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in geo-environmental science and a master’s degree in engineering management, agreed, saying, “You would see the real expense if this project wasn’t done and storms came in.”

The question for Ruch and others involved in the Delaware beach reconstruction projects — now, perhaps more than ever — is whether the federal government will find the money for reconstruction of this, the final project area of the Delaware beaches, especially in light of other potential projects for which other legislators will be fighting.

“There are so many projects in the hopper,” Ruch explained. “You have to work for a big cost-benefit ratio.

“But Delaware has done very well,” he said, emphasizing the contribution of the Delaware delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.

For Bethany Beach Mayor Jack Walsh, it’s the teamwork of all involved in carrying the projects to reality that is their hope. He concluded his thanks for ongoing efforts and remarks on the future with a quote from Ruch’s prior commentary on the subject — a quote Ruch himself was only too eager to repeat.

“Partnership is what this is all about,” Ruch said.

Castle noted that, while assistance on the funding from concerned legislators from others states would never be refused, it was the work of Delaware’s delegation that was leading the effort to get funding for the state’s beach replenishment projects.

Whether the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project will come out well in the 2007 federal funding allocations remains to be seen. And, according to Ruch and Pratt, those funding decisions will be the determining factor on when — and how — the reconstruction project proceeds.

Ruch said the Corps will need to know how much federal funding is being allocated for the project this year before it can even begin to determine timetables and scopes for the project.

Pratt noted that while the ability to use continuing contracts to begin a project with partial funding has been eliminated from Corps projects, and reprogramming was also prohibited, keeping the Delaware project from claiming unused funds from other projects, they can now carry over funding from one fiscal year to the next.

That means the $3.3 million allocated in the 2006 fiscal year can likely remain in play into the 2007 fiscal year, in October, instead of disappearing like a coastal fog under Monday’s hefty winds.

And the up side to prohibitions on reprogramming, Ruch noted, is that other states can no longer lay claim to those unused funds that the Delaware delegation has worked so hard to get for the two towns.

Still, the changes in Corps funding protocols mean a likely delay for the project over what could have been a few years ago. Castle said he anticipated the funding process to be a two- to three-year process, possibly stretching into the 2008 fiscal year before the total funding picture is clear.

There are still hopes for a fall 2006 start on construction, though. The $3.3 million allocated so far has gone toward engineering and easement collection, among other early construction work. The remaining amount could serve to get work started on a scaled-down project, or be kept over and added to funds from the 2007 budget.

“We’re hoping to get the full amount in this year’s budget,” Ruch and Pratt noted. “If we don’t, we’ll have to huddle up and make a decision.”