Bush budget proposal eliminates beach funding one more time

It’s become an annual tradition, like the Memorial Day weekend rush to the shore, the Bethany Beach Fourth of July parade or children returning to school in the fall. But the news from President George W. Bush’s annual budget recommendations is less than good again this year for Bethany Beach and South Bethany officials.

With last summer’s devastating hurricane season, residents of and property owners in coastal areas around the country might have hoped that Bush would consider widespread, enhanced shoreline protection projects — including beach reconstruction and replenishment to offset erosion.

But as has been the case in every year of his presidency, and under President Bill Clinton before him, Bush’s budget did not include specific funding initiatives for widespread shoreline protection for the coming fiscal year. Areas hit hard by the terrible hurricanes of 2005 were specifically allotted some funding for such projects, but the rest of the country will again have to fend for itself through the Congressional portion of the budgeting process.

That does indeed include those in Bethany Beach and South Bethany — the only towns in coastal Delaware to not yet have a grain of sand pumped onto their increasingly narrow beaches in the latest wave of major beach reconstruction projects around the state.

Lewes, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach had their reconstruction projects finished before the summer of 2005, when new controls over the Army Corps of Engineers made major impacts on federal funding and how it is used for such projects. Fenwick Island’s project was begun in August under funding from the 2005 fiscal year and targeted for its final stages this winter, with funds from the 2006 fiscal year — at the standard 65/35 federal/state cost sharing.

But Bethany Beach and South Bethany have yet to have their construction actually begin. They were allotted some $3 million in federal funding in the 2006 fiscal year but will have to ensure significant additional funding will forthcoming in the 2007 fiscal year budget before final planning on construction can begin.

As it stands, town officials have moved on from the voluntary portion of their collection of construction easements from affected property owners and into the condemnation process to gain the few remaining needed easements before construction can begin.

The watchful eyes have turned to Congress now, hoping for a similar – if not better — result in the federal budgeting process for the coming fiscal year than what happened in 2005.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives followed Bush’s lead in eliminating funding for beach reconstruction projects. Not a dollar was provided for the Bethany Beach and South Bethany. The Senate, however, put $4 million for the project in its version of the Water and Energy Appropriations Bill. In conference, the two houses arrived at the $3 million figure that ended up in the final budget for this fiscal year – much to the relief of coastal citizens and state beach oversight officials.

That’s often the case — a last-minute compromise that provides some federal funding for such projects, despite the presidential recommendation to cease such support in favor of state or local funding.

But recent emphasis on the financial efficiency of Corps projects — particularly shoreline protection and navigation projects — has put Delaware’s hoped-for shoreline projects on the short list for major cuts or elimination. And the changes in Corps funding policies mandated by Congress last year also put an end to some of the methods through which the Corps funded multi-year projects or paid for those they considered necessary but that weren’t given specific funding in that budget year.

That means officials from the two towns will again be waiting on tenterhooks for the federal budget process to come to a close this year — this time in order to find out if the remainder of the funding needed to complete the project will be allotted.

Very few projects in Delaware got the nod from Bush in the proposed budget.

The proposal directs the Corps to reimburse the state of Delaware for normal operation and maintenance costs incurred by the state for the State Route 1 Bridge in the northern part of the state between Oct. 1, 2005, and Sept. 30, 2006 — standard practice for the Corps-controlled project area.

It also provides $275,000 for the Corps to remove the sunken vessel State of Pennsylvania from the Christina River, under the aegis of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 2006.

Among the projects nationwide receiving significant funding above the usual expected annual amount is funding to conduct a comprehensive hurricane protection analysis and design, at full federal expense, to aid in the design of a full range of flood control, coastal restoration and hurricane protection measures for South Louisiana.

Bush directs the Corps to submit a preliminary technical report for comprehensive Category 5 hurricane protection within six months of enactment of the appropriations bill and a final technical report for Category 5 protection within 24 months of enactment.

There is also an additional amount for “investigations” to expedite studies of flood and storm damage reduction related to the consequences of hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean in 2005.

That comes in at $37 million, which is to remain available until expended, and $10 million of which is to be used to conduct an analysis and design for comprehensive improvements or modifications to existing improvements in the coastal area of Mississippi in the interest of hurricane and storm damage reduction, prevention of saltwater intrusion, preservation of fish and wildlife, prevention of erosion, and other related water resources purposes at full federal expense.

Those budget priorities clearly focus on the Gulf region that was so heavily hit by the 2005 hurricanes, but other coastal regions in the rest of the nation are largely left to their own devices in terms of shoreline protection. That includes Delaware’s two remaining shore towns — unless Congress countermands that intention and provides significant funding for the planned Bethany Beach-South Bethany project.

Undoubtedly, state and local officials will again be lobbying senators and congressmen this summer to try to ensure that funding is provided. The usefulness of the project’s funding from the 2006 fiscal year budget will remain up in the air until that issue is decided, as likely will a timetable for actual construction on the project to begin.