Beach nourishment along Outer Banks will be sustainable for ‘foreseeable future’
On a cool March afternoon, Janie Baldi stands on her 2nd floor porch and peaks over rooftops to gaze at the ocean disappearing into the horizon. She proudly shares that her house was recently remodeled, complete with new blue and white exterior paint.
Baldi and her husband built their house in Buxton in 1987 and moved here permanently during the pandemic.
"We have two daughters who are now grown and gone," said Baldi. "But while they were younger, we would bring them down here for vacations. Sometimes we would spend Thanksgiving, Christmas [and] New Year's here."
Baldi’s home isn’t beachfront — it’s a few houses down from the shoreline. She says that gives her a little bit of protection when storms come.
"When we have overwash because of a hurricane or a nor'easter, we just watch the ocean flow right down [our street]," Baldi said.
For even more protection, several towns along the Outer Banks are working on beach nourishment projects this summer, including the towns of Buxton, Duck and Nags Head.
Beach nourishment is the process of dredging up sand from out in the ocean, pumping it onto the beach, and spreading it out with heavy machinery. It's meant to address erosion, which is happening faster and more severely due to climate change.
Dare County officials say beach nourishment will continue to be a sustainable solution to erosion for the 'foreseeable future.' But it's unclear exactly how long that is.
"The only tool in North Carolina that's available to [mitigate erosion] is beach nourishment," said Dare County Manager Bobby Outten. "As long as there's a sand source... And as long as we have sufficient funds to get that sand on the beach, then we can continue to do this."
These projects are expected to become more expensive over time. Regardless, residents like Baldi say they will support these replenishment efforts.
Beach nourishment projects come at a high cost
Since the 1930s, there have been nearly 300 beach nourishment projects on North Carolina’s coast at a cost of over $700 million, according to the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University.
The projects along the Outer Banks this summer are estimated to start this month and end around September, and cost between $6 to $18 million.
Until 2004, federal funding covered most of the cost of these projects. Now, local communities have to pay for it themselves, or — in some cases, like after a hurricane — apply for funding from FEMA.
In Dare County, beach nourishment is largely paid for by the county occupancy tax, which is funded by visitors who rent out houses or condos. The county also uses various property and municipal service district taxes.
"We have a financial model that's funded by our occupancy taxes on the tourism industry," Outten said. "That tax is modeled out to make sure that we can continue to maintain the projects that we do. We don't start new projects if we can't afford to take care of the ones that we've already got."
In February, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report predicting that sea level along the U.S. coastline will rise 10 to 12 inches in the next 30 years. That’s as much sea level rise as the last 100 years. The report also said that higher sea levels will amplify the impacts of coastal erosion.
This could mean that beaches will need to do beach nourishment projects more often. Dare County currently does these projects every five years.
It is certain, however, that these projects will become more expensive over time. Eventually, crews will need to go further out into the ocean in order to gather all the sand that's needed. The further out crews go, the more expensive these projects get.
"The models that we run increase the cost over time," Outten said. "Similarly, the revenue that we generate from occupancy tax [should] grow over time. As long as our revenue growth is at or about what our cost growth is, then we're okay."
Jetties, seawalls and other solutions
Another potential solution is to build hard structures like jetties, groins, or seawalls. These structures are used in places like Florida and Virginia. In 2003, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that bans widespread building of these structures.
Rob Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, explained that hard structures won’t help address beach erosion in North Carolina.
"If you build sea walls, groins and jetties on the beach, you're still going to have to do beach nourishment," Young said. "It's because hard structures are designed to protect property. They're not designed to protect the beach."
Young adds that hard structures are a temporary solution, much like beach nourishment. Barrier islands like the Outer Banks are constantly moving, and over long periods of time migrate toward the mainland.
Young believes the only sensible long-term solution is managed retreat.
"Managed retreat means that instead of spending lots of money and time and resources to try and hold the shoreline in place everywhere, we find a way in those places where the erosion is the worst, and where there are homes that are constantly coming out onto the beach due to erosion, and we find a way to move those," Young said. "So that you're not spending your resources on property that is constantly a headache. That allows you to spend your money on the parts of your community that are far more sustainable over the long run."
Outten disagrees. He said managed retreat is simply not an option.
"You wouldn't like it if your county commissioner [showed up] at your house and said 'Hey guys, I'm sorry, but you have to pack up and move,'" Outten said. "That's not a tenable solution. We have to find ways to live with nature and protect the things that we value and mitigate the impacts as best we can."
This leaves beach nourishment as the only option for coastal communities.
Young agrees that beach nourishment is a practical solution for the Outer Banks for the near term.
"I think it's going to be a pretty workable solution for them. I wouldn't say into the foreseeable future because I guess that depends on how far into the future you're willing to foresee," Young said. "There will come a point in time when it will be incredibly difficult and prohibitively expensive for them to hold that shoreline in place. The question is simply whether that happens 15 years from now, or 30 years from now. Who knows?"
Dare County held an informational meeting in Buxton in March for residents to learn more about the upcoming beach nourishment projects. While many residents had questions and concerns, there was still overwhelming support for the project.
Paul and Maria Linden were a couple of the few dozen people who showed up to the meeting. The married couple owns a home in Avon, but lives mostly in Greensboro.
The Lindens say they dreamed of owning a home in the Outer Banks for decades. They finally bought one in October 2020, despite the costs and risks.
"When we bought [the house], of course we were a little nervous knowing what's happening here," said Maria Linden. "But I'm happy [Dare County is] being proactive [about] it. Being able to make that dream come true and have family vacations here... It's been awesome."
"It is a constant worry thinking about storms... Because it's a pretty vulnerable string of islands," added Paul Linden. "But we always wanted a place at the beach and we decided that we're not getting any younger.
"I knew I was going to get taxed. Of course, I'm not really excited about that. But I do understand that in order to protect... The islands down here, that something had to be done."
Residents and homeowners who spoke to WUNC all shared the same feeling: they will continue to support beach nourishment projects, despite the cost, because they believe it's worth it.
"This is my life. This is my home," said Baldi, a resident of Buxton. "My children grew up here, basically, and they're starting to have children.
"I'm going to die someday. So I would like to know that this is a place where my family can come and carry on and enjoy as we did for so many years. So, yeah, I would support continued efforts."