By Jake Assael
Coastal communities are vibrant, well-populated, economic powerhouses, but as seas continue to rise, exacerbating hurricane damage and coastal flooding, coastal areas are becoming increasingly dangerous to inhabit. Hurricane Matthew was only the latest example of the perils that coastal communities are facing. The category 3 hurricane took the lives of 19 Americans, while costing an estimated $10 billion in damages. The increasing frequency and strength of storms battering the coasts is having irreparable harm on a coastal economy that generates 43 percent of the Nation’s GDP. According to the National Oceans Economic Program (NOEP) 2016 report, the Mid-Atlantic States (NY, NJ, DE, MD and VA) coastal counties alone account for 11.5 percent of the Nation’s GDP and 9 percent of its employment and population. In August Zillow projected that if sea level rise met current predictions 300 U.S. cities would lose at least half their homes, and 36 cities would be permanently lost.
Beaches are often the first line of defense blocking intense storm surges and coastal flooding, protecting hundreds of coastal communities. The FY ’16 federal budget allocated only $104 million to place sand on depleted beaches, despite the need for four times that amount. The Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency tasked with carrying out beach nourishment projects has $125 million worth of project commitments annually in just New Jersey. But money aside, will there be enough sand to keep beaches robust, as seas rise, and the list of federal beach nourishment projects grows? The Army Corps is looking to plan some 40 projects over the coming 20 years, with needs for at least 140 million cu. yards of sand, not including projects that have already been authorized, substantially increasing its demand for sand.
To regenerate these beaches, coastal states are reliant on beach quality sand dredged from ocean and rivers. But this sand has also drawn demand from a multi-billion dollar industry, sand mining. Sand mining is relied on to create everything from concrete, gravel, and toothpaste. Not only is this taxing scarce beach quality sand resources, but it is also having a detrimental effect on ecosystems, coastal water flows, and making coastal counties less resilient. A 2014 report from the United Nations Environment Program estimated that the construction industry consumed between 25.9 to 29.6 billion tons of sand in 2012. From China and India’s rapid development, to the sand and gravel industry, which has been growing at a 10 percent annual rate since 2008, a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that the global construction industry will grow by 85 percent by 2030.
The lack of sand resources has brought criticism against the Corps and its ability to maintain federal beach nourishment projects and their 50-year life cycles, but without strong beaches, coastal cities like New York, Miami, and Norfolk would be losing their first line of defense against potential hurricanes, and will become more susceptible to smaller storm surges. It also leaves vulnerable smaller coastal communities that do not have the funds for comprehensive coastal resilience plans like their larger counterparts. These communities tend to be heavily dependent on federal funding for beach nourishment projects.
Albeit uncertainty surrounding sand resources and the exploding demand for sand, the federal government needs to increase investments into beach nourishment projects. As of now putting sand on beaches is the most effective manner in slowing coastal erosion, abating storm surges, and preventing flooding. Hurricane Matthew has only increased the urgency for increased beach nourishment funding as it washed out 15 percent of Florida’s sand dunes, and as much as 40 percent in South Carolina, causing beaches to lose millions of cu. yards of sand. If the Trump administration does not prioritize coastal resilience, then abandoning the coasts, or elevating all coastal infrastructure may become an expensive and unwelcome reality.
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