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The Changing Carolina Coast: Sand Is Everywhere, Except When It Isn't

Jockey's Ridge State Park
Dave DeWitt
Jockey's Ridge State Park is the tallest natural sand dune in the eastern United States.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head is North Carolina’s most famous giant pile of sand—and the tallestnatural sand dunein the eastern United States.

But here’s a little secret: Even a remarkable all-natural phenomenon like Jockey’s Ridge needs a little man-made help.

Constant winds push the sand in a southwesterly direction across Jockey’s Ridge—so much so that periodically the sand needs to be collected and trucked back to the northeastern-most corner of the park to start the journey all over again.

And it’s also historically been a resource.

“It was a site that had been used to remove sand from the system to help build the Wanchese Seafood Park or to help stabilize or use in other construction projects,” says Peggy Birkemeier, the founder of the Friends of Jockeys Ridge.

The Jockeys Ridge story points to several key points when considering sand: First, it’s a valuable commodity. And second, it doesn’t ever stay exactly where we want it.

That’s true if you’re lounging in a beach chair or trying to keep a port open.

“If you walk the North Carolina coast it looks like a sand beach, mostly the same everywhere,” says Bill Birkemeier, the former director of theU.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Duck Research Pier. He's also and Peggy’s husband.

“But the underlying geology is different. The direction the beaches face is different. How steeply it drops off is different. The type of material on the beach is different; it’s fine in some areas, it’s coarse and gravelly in some areas.”

How we remove or retain that sand has become a constant, multi-billion dollar activity for the state of North Carolina.

According to a database created by Western Carolina University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, more than $500 million has been spent rebuilding North Carolina's beaches. Since 1983, we’ve spent about $100 million alone replacing Highway 12, built on the sands of the Outer Banks.

Our inlets and ports are especially problematic. They fill with sand and need almost constant dredging. The state house recently allocated emergency funds to dredge the Morehead City Port, proposing a budget of $75 million, mostly to get sand out of the shipping lanes there and in Wilmington.

“It’s not just the larger ports that are contributing to the United States economy, but these ports- Morehead City and Wilmington- are also having a very viable impact on not just the economy of North Carolina but the economy of our nation,” says Governor Pat McCrory.

 North Topsail Beach
Credit Dave DeWitt
A panoramic view of the beach nourishment project at North Topsail Beach.

Sand-free ports and inlets allow shipping and fishing, but the real economic driver on the coast is tourism. And bulldozers and backhoes may be the key to keeping the cash register ringing along the beaches.

North Topsail Beach is currently ground zero in the beach nourishment business in North Carolina. The town has an annual budget of $3 million, yet has spent seven times that amount on two recent beach rebuild projects.

It’s an ugly process with road graders, huge pumps, and a massive black pipe snaking along the length of beach, but town officials say it’s necessary.

“Our economy is tourism,” says Dan Tuman, the Mayor of North Topsail. “Eighty-five percent of the residences in this town are owned by absentee owners. And these are not the rich and famous who come here and these are their second homes. These are businesses. They are there for rental purposes for tourists.”

And tourists come for the sand. The most recent project to keep it in front of those rental properties started last fall—funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that will be paid off by local sales and occupancy taxes.

A few months into construction, the project hit a frustrating snag.

“We discovered rocks,” says Tuman. “I looked at them and said ‘this isn’t the kind of beach I want to restore.’”

Basketball-sized rocks are bad for the beach business—and for endangered turtles and other wildlife. Removing them caused significant delays and forced the town to get federal approval to continue.

Some called the episode a sign of things to come.

“Sand is hard to come by,” says Todd Miller, the executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation. “Projects are becoming progressively more expensive. The locations are not as easy to re-nourish, so the potential for problems is increasing.”

That’s not stopping nearly every coastal community in the state from thinking about, planning, or executing beach nourishment projects. Carolina Beach, south of Wilmington, has rebuilt its beach 30 times. And the towns of Duck, Kill Devils Hills, and Kitty Hawk are planning a massive project that could begin next year.

It’s also forcing towns to look at more drastic measures,like terminal groins – hardened structures that jut out into the ocean and hold sand in a very specific place.

'Projects are becoming progressively more expensive. The locations are not as easy to re-nourish, so the potential for problems is increasing.'

The state legislature has given the OK to four groin projects and may look to approve more.

“The state of North Carolina for the last 25 years has had probably the best coastal zone management in the country,” says Rob Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelinesat Western Carolina University.

Young says part of that effective management was a ban on those hardened structures—and by undoing that ban, North Carolina may be losing its way. He also says the way we fund beach and coastal restoration projects is unsustainable – and he offers a solution.

“We need to get the public funds out of the picture,” he says.  “If the local folks had a little more skin in the game financially, then they would be a lot more interested in the science we like to talk about regarding coastal hazards and even long-term sea-level rise.”

And while some federal funds have dried up, public money is still very much behind projects designed to move and retain sand.

Frank Gorham is the current chair of the Coastal Resources Commission. He also lives on private Figure Eight Island, and offers a simple explanation as to why we are willing to pay so much.

“I used to literally dream of owning a beach house,” says Gorham, who works in the oil and gas industry. “And I took a chance. It’s a calculated risk. But the coast of North Carolina is so rewarding. My best family time has been on the coast.”

Jim Bly also loves the beach. Like most of us, he can not afford a house here, but he is using one of the many public-access points on North Topsail to bring his dog Bella out on a warm weekday morning.

He lives across the bridge in Sneads Ferry, and his taxes help pay for rebuilding these beaches.

“As they replenish these houses, the dunes in front of these houses are on an eroding sandbar that’s inevitably going to disappear anyway. It’s costing taxpayers a lot of money,” he says.

Read Part 1 of The Changing Carolina Coast: Managing The Threat Of Rising Water

beach pipeline
Credit Dave DeWitt
A high-pressure pipeline snakes across the sand at North Topsail Beach.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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