A fight over millions for sand

Cuts: Federal money for beach maintenance would be eliminated under the president's budget proposal.

February 26, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - The Ferris wheel was frozen, a raw wind clawing the barren boardwalk. Mayor Jim Mathias was prowling the beach during the off-season, examining the erosion that is gnawing away at the sandy foundation of this narrow island paradise of fried dough joints and tattoo parlors.

As hotel owners prepare for the summer tourist invasion, Mathias and other leaders of beach towns from Florida to California are working on what some regard as an equally vital task: fighting a Bush administration proposal to eliminate federal funding for beach maintenance projects.

Every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends about $100 million sending dredge ships with long vacuum tubes to suck up sand from the ocean bottom and spew it onto public beaches.

"Maintaining this beach is a matter of protecting lives and property, and these projects help create an essential buffer against storms and hurricanes," Mathias said, as he stood between the frothing surf and a palisade of hotels that line the beach.

But despite protests from coastal towns, terminating "beach nourishment" is one of only a few Bush proposals hailed by environmentalists and conservative budget hawks alike.

Some say a time of war is not the moment to be spending federal dollars fluffing up tanning beds. Others argue that heaping sand at the water's edge is a futile attempt to deal with rising sea levels, and only tends to encourage excessive waterfront development, while harming habitats for birds, fish and crabs.

Supporters of the sand pumping projects argue that wider beaches are an important protection for the business centers of towns that contribute millions in federal tax dollars every year.

Since 1988 in Ocean City, the federal, state and local governments have split the cost of $75 million in projects to pump more than 10 million cubic yards of sand onto the beach and build an eight-mile-long dune.

As part of an regular beach maintenance routine for which the federal government pledged to support every fourth year for 50 years, Ocean City was supposed to receive $5 million in federal funds next year. But that $5 million is targeted for elimination as part of national cuts that also include reductions for the Chesapeake Bay Program and ending support for a native oyster restoration project, according to the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers.

"The administration's view is that renourishment to remedy the year-by-year natural erosion of sand off of beaches is not a federal responsibility," said Scott Johnson, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Chad Kolton, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said that about $50 million approved for beach nourishment projects nationally last year is to be cut in fiscal 2006 if Congress approves the president's budget.

The Bush administration supports a federal role in helping to repair erosion damage immediately after storms, and plans to spend about $44 million on that in the next budget, plus another $4 million fixing erosion caused by navigation projects. But nothing is to be spent replacing sand lost to routine erosion, as in Ocean City, Kolton said.

In an attempt to keep the federal money flowing, Ocean City is working with U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, a lobbying firm in Washington, a national association of beach communities, and others to try to persuade Congress to restore the money for beach projects in 2006.

In the past, such lobbying has paid off, with Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also trying to cut funding, only to have Congress slip the money back into the appropriations bills.

"You could define these projects as pork," said Victor D'Amato, coastal issues chairman for the North Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.

"Sometimes they are sold as environmental projects, but the driver behind them is really to protect waterfront development," said D'Amato. "The pumping of sand from the ocean bottom can actually cause environmental destruction by harming critical habitat for fish and covering up organisms such as clams and crabs."

Orrin Pilkey Jr., a professor emeritus at Duke University, said heaping sand onto beaches is a waste of taxpayer money that mostly helps wealthy waterfront property owners. Piles of sand won't slow the global warming that is causing sea levels to rise about 1.5 feet a century, driving beaches inland by an average of about 30 feet a year in some areas.

"We should be bulldozing waterfront buildings if our primary concern is to preserve beaches for future generations," said Pilkey. "If our primary concern is the buildings, then, sure, we should be creating these artificial beaches."

Such talk infuriates waterfront leaders in Delaware, New York, Florida, California and elsewhere who say their homes and businesses will be swept away if government funding for sand dries up.

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