Workers at an ongoing beach replenishment project in Allenhurst on Jan. 6, 2022. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
Bulldozers on the beach and distant barges dredging sand up from the ocean floor are as much of a Jersey Shore staple as sea gulls, Snooki, and Kohr’s custard cones. They’re around most winters to replenish the sand that storms wash out to sea every year.
To John Weber, a local leader of the national environmental group the Surfrider Foundation, this is a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
“It’s welfare for wealthy people who have oceanfront homes,” said Weber.
But to Margot Walsh, an advocate with the coastal protection group Jersey Shore Partnership, this annual work is critical to the coastline’s — and even the state’s — survival.
“Without beach replenishment, the Jersey coastline would disappear. We would lose the state’s most popular natural recreational resource, seriously impact our coastal defense system, and destroy the tourism economy that supports the entire state,” said Walsh.
The debate is an old one in a state that has the most developed and densely populated shoreline in the country. Only 31.2 miles of the 127 miles of shoreline between Sandy Hook and Cape May Point have no human development between the salt marshes and the sea, according to Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center.
But it’s a debate that has picked up steam in recent years, as climate change causes more frequent and more turbulent storms that erode Jersey Shore beaches, which draw millions of visitors a year.
This month, federal officials announced $30.2 million in federal funding from the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be used to replenish beaches between the Manasquan and Barnegat inlets.
Normally, such work requires the state to share project costs by kicking in up to half of a project’s total price tag, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal overseer of such work, covering most of the rest (and the municipality picking up a small portion).
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Shawn LaTourette told the New Jersey Monitor he expects the state will have to match the $30.2 million from the infrastructure bill but is awaiting further guidance from the feds.
While beach replenishment supporters celebrated news of the new federal funding, some say it shows why New Jersey must expand its Shore Protection Fund, which doesn’t have enough money in it to cover a $30.2 million match.
State legislators created the fund in 1993 with a $15 million annual appropriation they boosted to $25 million in 1998. Lawmakers have introduced legislation four times since 2015 to double the spending to $50 million, but the bills have not passed.
It is one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on New Jersey taxpayers. And it needs to stop.
– Ross Kushner, Surfrider Foundation supporter
Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), a prime sponsor of the bill in the last session, told the New Jersey Monitor he will introduce it again this year if he can build consensus between beach replenishment’s fans and foes.
“We have millions of people who come to the Jersey Shore. It’s part of the fabric of our state. A lot is at stake here,” Gopal said.
He added, “I told all these groups we need to get on the same page.”
That seems unlikely.
After the Senate unanimously passed Gopal’s bill last summer, environmentalists from 21 groups created a coalition to advocate against it. They gathered on a Deal beach in October to publicly condemn replenishment as an expensive, overused, and ecologically devastating coastal-protection strategy.
A big scam?
Ross Kushner is a Surfrider Foundation supporter from Kinnelon who opposes expanding the fund, because he thinks state environmental officials have skirted guidelines intended to ensure legislative oversight of coastal projects.
As designed, he said, the fund requires the DEP to give the Legislature an annual prioritized list of coastal projects, along with their purpose, impact, cost, and timetable.
The Legislature was tasked with ensuring the projects aligned with the New Jersey Shore Protection Master Plan and passing legislation authorizing each project before any funding could be disbursed, according to the law. That would give the public a chance to weigh in on such projects, he added.
Instead, Kushner said, the DEP has not followed that required process and uses the fund primarily to pay the state’s share of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that “are mostly designed to pump sand onto the beaches of oceanfront mansions, protecting the investments of the wealthy.”
“While there have been good projects in the mix, they are far outweighed by handouts for the uber-rich,” Kushner said. “In my opinion, it is one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on New Jersey taxpayers. And it needs to stop.”
But while the DEP doesn’t follow the process laid out by that law, LaTourette said the department’s shore-preservation priorities do essentially get legislative review and approval because the department presents them annually to the state Commission on Capital Budgeting and Planning. Four legislators sit on that 14-member commission, which is tasked with developing a state Capital Improvement Plan and submitting it to the governor and Legislature for review and approval.
The department last year publicly reported how it has spent Shore Protection Fund dollars since the fund’s creation. Nearly half of the 184 projects funded were beach fills, with bulkheads, seawalls, jetties, and levees other common improvements, the report shows.
That report also lists about 80 projects that failed to get funding, proof that coastal protection needs more investment, LaTourette said.
“The wallet is never deep enough,” he said.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy added $20 million to the current state budget to fund beach replenishment beyond what the Shore Protection Fund covers. LaTourette said he plans to ask for an additional allocation again in the upcoming state budget but couldn’t say yet how much.
Kushner, Weber, and other environmentalists who oppose beach replenishment say the state instead should spend money to buy back developed coastal properties and restore them to their natural state.
“Can we admit original sin? Can we admit that we built too close to the ocean? If you don’t start there, I can’t talk to you,” Weber said. “I love our beaches more than anybody, but we’re loving our beaches to death. We have to change the mindset. The tourism economy doesn’t go away if we pull back from the coastline 150 feet. No one’s house should be so close that they can throw a fishing pole in the water from their deck.”
A “managed retreat” from the waterline will be “a more permanent solution than pumping millions of dollars of sand that washes away every few years,” Weber added.
The environmentalists, though, are fighting against decades of coastal preservation strategy. Congress first authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the shoreline about a century ago.
Since then, New Jersey has placed almost 207 million cubic yards of sand onto its beaches, at a cost of close to $1.5 billion, according to the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. Only Florida, with nearly five times as much coastline, has invested more in beach replenishment, according to the association.
A $26 million replenishment project now under way between Deal and Loch Arbour in Monmouth County should be completed by March 1, said Hector Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New York district office.
Protecting the tourism economy
New Jersey is the “most productive” state when it comes to how much sand is placed along each foot of beach, said Nicole Elko, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association’s science director. In the past century, New Jersey has placed about 3 cubic yards per foot of beach each year — that’s about one dump truck load every 10 feet of beach, Elko said.
She agreed the price tag for beach replenishment “can be staggering.”
“But overall, beach nourishment is a small investment, relative to the large economy that it is driving,” Elko said. “Compare a beach nourishment project that might cost $20 million dollars and last for 10 years to the beach tourism industry in New Jersey, which generates billions annually. It is a no-brainer to continue to invest in beach nourishment.”
Kim McKenna, a self-professed beach-loving “Jersey girl” and associate director of Stockton’s Coastal Research Center, echoed that sentiment. She predicted the beach-going public would never tolerate returning the shoreline to its natural state.
“Beach fills protect homes and also allow people to have vacations and spend their money at the Shore,” McKenna said.
The center is partially funded by the state Shore Protection Fund.
McKenna warned rising sea levels may force federal and state authorities to eventually back away from beach replenishment. Sea level at the Jersey Shore has risen about 18 inches since the early 1900s, according to a 2020 report by Rutgers University’s NJ Climate Change Resource Center.
“People are feeling it already, with the roads starting to flood more often, mostly on the back part of the barrier islands. More communities are having to fix their infrastructure by expanding storm drains and installing pump systems,” McKenna said. “It’s getting more and more expensive to find sand, because we have to go deeper in the ocean to get it. There’s not many contractors who do these beach fills, and they’re very expensive. At some point, it’s going to become too expensive.”
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