Beach replenishment timeline expected soon

One of the most-asked questions in Bethany Beach and South Bethany these days is: When will they start putting sand on the beach?

With $3 million lined up to be allocated for the two towns’ beach reconstruction project in the 2006 fiscal year federal budget, delighted residents and property owners are eagerly anticipating the day their refurbished beach will become a reality.

But the date the dredges might start remains up in the air, according to Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) replenishment guru Tony Pratt, who said he — and town officials — might get some kind of idea about a timeline for the project in the next month or so.

Pratt said last week that he assumed the budget bill would be passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in the coming days with no tweaking to the amount provided for the project, based on standard practices.

Indeed, Congress passed the bill Monday night, Nov. 14, taking it on to the president for his signature and yet another step closer to reality for the shore towns. In an e-mail to local and state officials, Marlowe & Co. (beach replenishment lobbyists) Vice President Paul Ordal expressed confidence that the president would sign it.

After that, Pratt said, it will be up to the Army Corps of Engineers to examine the details of the bill — including any possible policy changes that might be included. Those policy decisions will control exactly how the Bethany-South Bethany project is lined up for financing and actual construction.

“Over the years, the Corps has taken on certain ways of managing funding that Congress wanted to weigh in on,” Pratt said.

That includes “reprogramming” of funding and a process referred to as “call back.”

Pratt said the now-complete Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach project was a case in point for the kind of funding management that some in Congress have sought to curtail.

In that case, in turned out some of the funds allocated for the project weren’t able to be spent in the fiscal year covered by that budget. So, the Corps took the unused funds and “reprogrammed” them into another project that lacked funding for the same time period, planning to transfer them back (“call back”) to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach project when they were ready to be used.

However, in the case of that particular project, the reprogramming/call back process didn’t work as smoothly as planned, Pratt said. A contractor actually stopped work on the project for about three weeks, he said, because the Corps didn’t have the money in hand.

They don’t want to run into that kind of problem with Bethany-South Bethany, and the Fenwick Island project area (nearing completion) could be an indication that things have been smoothed out in that arena.

Beyond that logistical snafu, Congressional concern about the concept of reprogramming funds for unfunded or underfunded projects without direct Congressional approval could mean it’s not even a possibility anymore.

That could affect the timeline for multi-year Bethany-South Bethany by limiting the flexibility of existing funds that might otherwise get the project going early or keep it going from one fiscal year to the next.

According to Pratt, another aspect of the funding management that Congress may tinker with is the ability for Corps to “bridge” contracts over two or more fiscal years — as has been proposed for the Bethany-South Bethany project.

A “continuing contract clause” would mean the allotted $3 million would likely be spent starting in September of 2006, with the balance of needed funds to come in the 2007 fiscal year budget — allowing construction to continue straight through from September 2006 into October 2006 (the first month of the 2007 fiscal year) until completion.

If Congress eliminates continuing contracts — as has been suggested — Corps managers would have to look into whether they were instead allowed to hold the $3 million over from the 2006 fiscal year budget into the 2007 fiscal year and start construction with the entire funding amount from both budget years. That would likely mean a start in October of 2006, but possibly as late as the fall of 2007.

Either way, the goal is to have all the funds for completing the project lined up and ready to go before the dredges actually start pumping.

Pratt said he had talked to Corps officials about the project Nov. 8 — the day after Congress had settled on the $3 million funding amount — but that they didn’t yet know what new rules Congress might have imposed on their funding process.

Ordal said he’d contacted the Corps to see what the funding would mean for the project’s schedule in the 2006 fiscal year, and indicated he also was trying to confirm how long the initial construction phase would last.

The complex language of the final bill, once it becomes law, will have to be examined by Corps policy heads to see if there are any rule changes and what those might be, as well as the extended implications, Pratt emphasized.

That means Bethany Beach and South Bethany property owners might have an initial timeline for the reconstruction project somewhere in the next four to six weeks, he estimated.

According to Jayne, the engineering for the project is all but complete. “For all practical purposes, (the Army Corps) could probably send out invitations to bid right away,” he said.

One thing remains to be completed, though, and it was very important, he said — the towns of South Bethany and Bethany Beach still needed to procure all the necessary construction easements from property owners along the beachfront.

Past most of South Bethany, he said the Army Corps had cleverly designed the project such that the “heel” of the dune came down to the east of any recorded lots.

South Bethany Town Manager Mel Cusick said they’d already obtained six out of the total 11 easements (primarily in Sandpiper Village) they would need. Bethany Beach had far more to procure, and still had a ways to go, he said — approximately half of the total easements needed, at last count.

Jayne remained optimistic, though — “They could be pumping by fall of next year,” he said.

The final answer to the question of when the sand will flow onto the beach will remain up in the air for some time to come, since last-minute complications could still come into play. But that timeline will at least give the towns’ residents a tentative date to mark on their calendars.

The state’s Congressional delegation joined local officials this week in celebrating the federal funding.

“I am extremely happy that our efforts to secure $3 million in federal funding for one of our most important beach replenishment projects in Delaware — at Bethany Beach — have succeeded,” said Rep. Mike Castle. “Construction efforts have been a long time coming and, hopefully, this funding will enable the area to achieve the same gorgeous beaches we are now experiencing at Dewey and Rehoboth.”

Castle touted the benefits of the projects to the area, saying, “Beach replenishment and renourishment are the keys to preserving our beaches in Delaware and ensure a tourism economy and I intend to keep working for this initiative, ensuring the proper funding is obtained.”

He was joined in that sentiment by Sens. Joe Biden and Tom Carper.

Biden noted that, along with funding other water and energy projects totaling $13 million in the state, “I am pleased that we will be able to maintain our commitment to Delaware’s beaches and continue the important beach replenishment projects along our coastline.”

“Once again, Congress has shown its commitment to restore Delaware’s beaches, one of our state’s main tourist attractions and a key ingredient to the economic health of Sussex County,” said Carper.

The Water and Energy bill includes, among others:

• $3 million for construction on the Bethany/South Bethany project.

• $1.275 million to continue construction on the Fenwick Island project.

• $320,000 to fund the Sand Bypass Facility at the Indian River Inlet. The project could help provide periodic nourishment to control beach erosion and protect beaches from hurricane damage.

• $600,000 to reconstruct the shoreline near the Indian River Inlet to protect a road to both the state of Delaware and U.S. Coast Guard facilities.