In defense of Jersey's shores
When beach projects cause damage, more projects may be required
On the Jersey Shore, a perpetual battle with erosion
Graphics and the series so far
Fifth of six parts
and Anthony R. Wood
The hotel has 254 guest rooms, all with water-view balconies. It boasts a million-dollar office center, heated pools, and a spa featuring full-body seaweed and mud masks.
And it offers something that was not part of the hotel's recent $10 million renovation plan - a brand-new, manicured beach to defend its investment from coastal storms and hurricanes.
That came courtesy of taxpayers.
It was the product of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same Corps that built Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor and swept the minefields of Normandy Beach on D-Day.
Over the last 220 years, the Corps has helped defend America's shores from foreign invaders. Today, it is pumping sand to defend hotels, vacation homes, amusement piers and fudge shops from the surging ocean.
In that role it finds itself in the heat of another battle.
Taxpayer-funded beachfill has become a symbol in the debate over coastal development, even though it is only one in a matrix of federal subsidies that benefit beach towns and property owners.
Most beachfills are "pork barrel" projects, says Lim Vallianos, a 30-year veteran of the Corps who is now an engineering consultant. Politicians - not engineers or geologists - decide which beaches to fill, and for the most part the projects protect investment properties.
"John Q. Public pays for the protection of commercial enterprises," Vallianos said.
Where beachfill is available, states and towns have less incentive to force builders to keep away from the fragile shoreline. And with so much investment at stake, coastal experts agree that beach towns will have to keep replenishing their beaches.
But with sea levels rising, it will take more and more sand - and billions more dollars - to hold the line in front of the developed shoreline for decades to come. And costs will increase as offshore sand supplies dwindle.
The debate centers on who should pay and, more fundamentally, whether it is worth the expense.
At its core is the tension between engineers, who view nature as a problem to be solved, and geologists, who hold that engineers cannot see beyond the life span of a mortgage.
The engineers, with the support of developers and local officials, hold that with so much valuable property on the coasts, the nation has no choice but to save the beaches.
"Retreat from the Shore is the most nonsensical discussion I ever heard," asserts James Mancini, longtime mayor of Long Beach Township. "Let's say the Shore is the boundary of the United States of America, the greatest country in the world. We have to protect it, and anybody with any brains agrees with that."
"Are you just going to walk away from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and say it doesn't exist?" asks Hank Glazier, the head of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association.
The geologists, backed by environmentalists, counter that beaches are never endangered - only beachfront properties. Erosion is erratic and unpredictable, and they say it is only a matter of time before rising tides turn today's beaches into tomorrow's sea bottoms. Thus, beachfill is a permanent and costly commitment.
"Engineering just never stops," said Orrin H. Pilkey, a Duke University geologist who is viewed as the antichrist by the engineering community.
The initial pumping operation is only the beginning. The offshore dredge that pumps the sand has to return to refill the beach every three to six years. Projects require a 50-year commitment of sand, and no one knows what will happen at the end of that time.
"Beachfill isn't like building a bridge," said Jeff Gebert of the Corps' Philadelphia district. "You don't build it and walk away expecting that there isn't anything you have to do for the next 10 years or 20 years."
Corps records are incomplete, but a review of annual reports and other documents dating to 1956 shows that the agency has spent at least $1.4 billion on shore-protection projects, in today's dollars. Adding state and local shares, the figure grows to more than $2.2 billion.
The ongoing fill project in North Jersey represents an escalation in the Corps' battle with nature. At 21 miles, from Sea Bright to Manasquan, it is the largest beachfill project in the nation's history.
If fully funded over 50 years, the $1 billion federal share of the costs would rival the total spent in the history of the program to date. About $5 billion would be required to defend the entire developed Jersey shoreline in the next 50 years; and tens of billions more to hold sandy beaches in front of developed areas nationwide.
Who foots the bill?
The Clinton administration has stated that it wants the federal government to get out of the beachfill business.
But as development has increased, so has the demand for beachfill - and pressure from lobbyists. In the last five years, Congress has appropriated $461 million for shore protection. That is well more than a third of the federal money spent in the 43-year lifetime of the program.
One reason the sand has kept flowing is Howard Marlowe. Working out of a Washington office, the former Senate staffer has become the nation's premier coastal lobbyist. When Marlowe's newly formed American Coastal Coalition convened a conference in 1998, it drew the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' top-ranking civilian; five U.S. senators; a long list of state and municipal officials; and two White House staffers.
Lobbyists such as Marlowe and New Jersey's Kenneth Smith hold that the nation's eroding beaches are "infrastructure" that should be maintained like man-made highways. It is a popular defense of beachfill, along with the argument that the U.S. government should be as generous to resort towns as it is to flood-prone river towns, where people live and work year-round.
That's an argument questioned even by some Corps officials, who believe resort towns should pay more.
In a typical project, the federal government picks up 65 percent of the total; the states, 25 percent; and municipalities 10 percent or less. The biggest beneficiaries - beachfront property owners - contribute indirectly through property taxes and a portion of the same taxes paid by all Americans.
"If you're the homeowner on the beach, it's a great deal," said Courtney Hackney, a coastal regulator in North Carolina, "because you pay very little for it. If you're a citizen living in Ohio, it's probably not a good deal at all."
James R. Houston, the Corps' chief engineer and one of the nation's leading proponents of beach nourishment, said that questions over who should pay are legitimate.
"The person who lives right on the coast, it seems like maybe they ought to pay more than somebody that lives inland or lives in the middle of the state," he said at a 1998 forum in Texas.
"Fuller Brush men"
Officially, the Corps has declared neutrality in the debate over beachfill appropriations. However, Corps officials, such as Houston, have appeared at coastal-development conferences and have openly encouraged local and state politicians and developers to lobby for projects.
The Corps does not undertake cost and feasibility studies until local governments apply for projects; thus, in effect, towns and counties have to make the first move.
Dery Bennett, president of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group, said Corps representatives have tried to sell New Jersey towns on beachfill like so many "Fuller Brush men. It's common knowledge that they're proactive in selling their wares," he said.
That is something of a reversal. In the early days, Corps officials wanted no part of shore protection and became involved only at the behest of Congress. "Not a damn one of these guys thought the federal government should be involved in it," Vallianos said.
The Corps' first foray into shore protection occurred more than 200 years ago, and it had nothing to do with pumping sand.
After it was created by Congress on March 11, 1779, the Corps went to work fortifying the shores of the new nation. It built Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner." Corps members were in every major war, and were part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
But by then, the Corps had been drafted into a very different mission on the domestic front: defending America's beaches from nature.
The battle of the beaches
In the 1920s, the Corps viewed beaches as a problem for the states, and the protection of waterfront property as no business of the United States, said Albert E. Cowdrey, a Corps historian.
But beach-erosion studies by engineers in New Jersey in 1922 and 1924 spawned the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, the nation's first beach-lobbying group. It pressured Congress to deploy the Corps, arguing that beaches were a national concern because Shore visitors came from many states.
The lobbyists prevailed. In the 1930s, Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act, commissioning the Corps to fight erosion. Thus an arm of the Defense Department was officially enlisted in the battle of the beaches.
The nation's first sand-pumping project began on Coney Island in 1922, but the Corps did not undertake its first project until the 1950s, and did not become heavily involved in beachfill until after the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 that pummeled the Mid-Atlantic.
Over the next 37 years, it would leave an extraordinary mark on America's beaches.
The data game
No one is certain how much sand Corps contractors have pumped onto the nation's beaches - not even the Corps.
"There is no funding mechanism to maintain a national database," a 1993 Corps report stated.
Pilkey, the Duke University geologist, contends that the Corps has used the data gaps to its advantage, making exaggerated claims about the durability of pumped sand and the accuracy of the computer models that tell it how much sand to pump. He said the Corps has placed too much faith in models that might work out fine in wave tanks but do not hold up in the violent and chaotic real world of the oceans.
While the Corps contends that its projects have performed as predicted, in the 1993 paper it acknowledged that the lack of data makes it difficult to assess.
"This lack-of-records excuse just blows my mind," Pilkey said.
By its own admission, the Corps has made costly mistakes, and as a result, taxpayers have spent millions to repair beaches, jetties and groins - and now stand to spend millions more.
A bungled Corps project led to a breach that swallowed more than 200 houses on Long Island in the winter of 1992-93. On Assateague Island, across from Ocean City, Md., Corps jetties completed in 1934 have accelerated erosion that is ripping apart the north end of the national seashore.
Still, even Pilkey acknowledges that Corps projects have prevented property damage, and that beachfill is a far more benign strategy than hardened seawalls. Without beachfill, "Wrightsville Beach [N.C.] would have disappeared over the horizon a long time ago," Pilkey said.
Like almost all of the Corps' major projects, the Wrightsville beachfill is defending private property. The Corps disputes claims that its projects encourage development, but it does not dispute that its primary mission is to guard real estate and the infrastructure that supports it.
To qualify for funding, projects have to be justified on the basis of preventing flood damage to private and public property. Thus, federal policies "virtually limit shore-protection projects to densely developed areas with high economic value," the Corps said in a 1995 report.
For example, the Corps has pumped more than $42 million worth of sand on built-out Ocean City, Md. Yet it has been unable to secure funding for a major fill project on undeveloped Assateague, across the channel.
Undeveloped Island Beach State Park is the only portion of the Jersey Shore that is not under consideration for federal beachfill money.
In its project planning, the Corps does not take into account the most catastrophic storms - a fact that could prove expensive.
"This project is not designed for a '62 storm," said Anthony Ciorra, the project manager for the North Jersey beachfill. Such a storm could erase mass quantities of sand and cause serious flood damage.
"One storm, not terribly unusual, could wipe out our investment here virtually overnight," Vallianos said. He added that a major failure on such a visible and expensive project might drive the Corps out of the beachfill business.
"If an Ash Wednesday Storm came along, to me it might spell doom for that program," he said.
Ultimately, the erosion problem transcends engineering, said Gary Griggs, director of the University of California's marine-science institute in Santa Cruz. The oceans, he points out, are thousands of miles wide.
"Here we are protecting inches," he said. "We can't protect ourselves from every natural disaster."
"Erecting a building on a beach is like building on an active volcano," Vallianos said. "You take your chances, and, sooner or later, you lose."
Gilbert M. Gaul's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; Anthony R. Wood's is email@example.com
Inquirer researcher Frank Donahue contributed to this series.
©2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.