STONE HARBOR – In many ways, New Jersey coastal communities have developed under the assumption of continued federal subsidies for periodic beach replenishments.
One 2015 academic study out of the University of North Carolina Wilmington concluded that coastal property values would drop by more than a third if federal subsidies for beach replenishment ended. One bill to end those subsidies was defeated in Congress as recently as 2013.
Thus far, the federal commitment to rebuilding and nourishing coastal beaches has remained strong. According to Western Carolina University data that tracks federal beach projects, the federal government has spent around $9 billion to rebuild and replenish beaches. Most of the funding comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Cape May County has several different beach project areas that receive periodic nourishment from USACE in conjunction with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). One of those areas, the Seven Mile Island Coastal Storm Risk Management project, is due for a periodic nourishment in 2022.
The funds have not yet been appropriated and the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA) restriction preventing the use of Hereford Inlet as a sand borrow area remains in place.
According to an email from the USACE project leader as recently as Dec. 1, the fiscal year 2022 Periodic Nourishment project has not yet received funding and the project manager had no update to offer on its status. He also confirmed that the USACE has no permission to dredge within Hereford Inlet at this time.
This status is not good news for Stone Harbor. The borough was skipped in the 2019 federal replenishment due to the Hereford Inlet prohibition. Stone Harbor also has no easy access to permitted borrow areas within the borough to support back passing efforts like those done in neighboring Avalon and North Wildwood.
While studies by the Stockton University Coastal Research Center have argued that mining sand from Hereford Inlet has no long-lasting negative impact, environmental groups like the National Audubon Society have taken the opposing position.
The Audubon Society initiated litigation to block a Trump administration rule that would have removed the CBRA restriction. In July, the Biden administration’s Interior Department reinstated the restriction.
Since the 1990s, the USACE has been signing 50-year cost-sharing agreements for beach building and replenishment along New Jersey’s coast. Ocean City had its initial beach construction in 1991 and 1992. Likewise, Cape May saw initial construction in 1991 and has benefited from 13 nourishment projects since then. The Seven Mile Island partnership agreement was inked in 2002.
While opponents call the effort Sisyphean, a task that can never be completed, supporters see the replenishments as essential to a multibillion-dollar tourist economy that, in the case of Cape May County, sends $1.5 million in tax revenue to Trenton per day.
One problem with the funding is the simple logistics of it. When the shore beaches are recovering from a major storm, there is usually enough relief funding to handle the federal commitment to nourishment. When that is not the case, funding must come through the annual appropriation process, which is often delayed by the political gamesmanship for which Congress has become well known in recent years.
The way the funding works in most cases is that the federal government covers 65% of the total project costs, leaving 35% for the state and local communities.
In New Jersey, the state uses Shore Protection funds derived from real estate transfer fees to provide 75% of that 35% local cost. That leaves the municipalities with the other 25% of the cost share, basically 9% of total costs.
One set of figures shows that $2 billion has been spent to move 180 million cubic yards of sand onto eroded Jersey beaches since the 1990s. Now, sea level rise and climate adaptation could play havoc with both the level of need and the amount of funding required. It is also likely to increase the competition for available funds.
For now, the funding is likely to be secure. There is little evidence that Washington will turn off that spigot anytime soon. The funds for the 2022 replenishment on Seven Mile Island will most likely come in time. That may not do the trick for Stone Harbor, which must still get an exemption for the use of Hereford Inlet sand or look to other borrow areas, which may increase costs.
In July, DEP environmental specialist Christopher Constantino made a presentation to Stone Harbor Borough Council at which he admitted that were the beach replenishment to begin at that time, the borough would not be able to use sand from Hereford Inlet. Now, almost six months later, not much seems to have changed.
It was during Stone Harbor’s Aug. 3 council meeting that Administrator Robert Smith proposed the borough hire a “heavy hitter” to find a political solution to the CBRA restrictions on Hereford Inlet sand.
Subsequently, a resolution was approved, allowing the administration to contract for the services of such an individual. The public has not heard much since then about whose services were procured and what the status of the effort is.
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.