A look at the billions of dollars behind beach renourishment: Is it worth it?

Beach renourishment is underway in Myrtle Beach on 31st street on Oct. 15.
Beach renourishment is underway in Myrtle Beach on 31st street on Oct. 15.
Published: Oct. 15, 2018 at 7:42 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) -More than $433 million has been spent on renourishing South Carolina beaches between 1954 and 2015.

Western Carolina University’s interactive database reveals the state ranks 6th in the country for amount spent restoring beaches.

Beach renourishment is a process of adding sand back on the beaches in order to create wider beaches and prevent erosion.

Locally, data reveals renourishment in Myrtle Beach has cost $58 million, while projects in Surfside Beach have cost just over $1 million.

These totals don’t include the $34 million project currently underway in the Grand Strand. These funds were awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers for emergency funds following Hurricane Florence.

What does this money do?

“It sounds like we’re making environmental improvements to the beach, we’re not,” said Bo Ives, Chairman of Keep Horry County Beautiful. “We’re making it more usable for tourism.”

Over time, waves cause sand to erode back into the sea. After a Hurricane, the sand can be displaced faster. Myrtle Beach recently lost 300,000 cubic feet of sand after Hurricane Florence.

“On the beach, if you think about it, beaches have storms come in and move the sediment around, so they are disturbed frequently so renourishment is another kind of nourishment, albeit an accelerated process,” explained Dr. Paul Gayes, the executive director of the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University.

Ives explained without these projects the beach would not be as wide and waves would crash closer to businesses and homes.

A wide beach allows more room for more recreation and activities, which translates to tourism dollars.

“The ocean and the beach are why Myrtle Beach is here,” said Mark Kruea, Myrtle Beach public information officer. “People come to enjoy certainly all the things we have to do, but they come to play on the beach and swim in the ocean. We need to make sure that beach and ocean continues to exist.”

Kruea described the renourishment process as giving mother nature a hand.

Wider beaches are also needed for safety as they decrease damage to nearby property when hurricanes hit.

“It is our first line of defense in a storm. That sand, those dunes are there to help protect this area from the storm surge. That’s why we put the beach back. It’s vitally important not only to the protection of the area and the protection of the people and the property, but also to our economy locally,” Kruea said.

Where are the dollars coming from?

Funding for these projects generally starts with local governments reaching out for federal assistance. Congress needs to approve the project. If approved, the project will be funded 65 percent with federal dollars and the remaining 35 percent will be shared by local and state governments.

Federal funds accounted for 57 percent of project costs, while local funds contributed to 27 percent.

Accommodation taxes in Myrtle Beach pay for beach renourishment, so residents only contribute through state taxes, according to Kruea.

Garden City, Surfside Beach and Huntington Beach have only used federal funds for beach renourishment, according to Western Carolina University’s database.

FEMA said it awards funds for beach renourishment through its Public Assistance grant programs. The agency said these funds don’t take away from money that could be used for othe recovery efforts because it is a separate grant.

“FEMA would rather spend say 10 million dollars restoring a big beach that’s been really knocked back in a storm than spending a $100 million dollars in flood claims for properties that are severely damaged, so that’s their motivation. You spend a dollar to save five dollars,” said the founder and president of Coastal Science and Engineering. Tim Kana.

Is it worth it?

“Why repave the road if it’s just going to eventually crumple, you maintain a road so people can use it to get place to place. You maintain a beach because that’s what people want to use,” Kana countered. “It’s an extraordinary amount of money that goes into beach tourism and that’s because people like going to the beach.”

Kana said the cost to replenish sand is relatively low compared to what property is worth.

Myrtle Beach has $3.5 billion of shorefront property, according to the city’s website.

“There have been studies by others that have shown the return on investment, in terms of reduced property damage during storms or the enhanced value of the beach just dwarf whatever expenditures are applied for beach nourishment,” Kana said.

For Gayes, beach renourishment is like other funded recovery efforts like floods and earthquakes.

“This is not cheap, but we have more and more people in the coastal zones, we have more and more of our economy and public safety and other issues, it’s not something that is easily walked away from,” Gayes said.

Kana also predicts if the value of the projects outweighs the value of property and tourism, areas will continue to pursue it.

Future Challenges

“We can continue to maintain the beaches where we are with considerable effort with putting enough sediment in with what is getting lost day to day but it’s not changing the game in terms of sea level rise because the roads and buildings aren’t any higher, but the sea is,”

Gayes said beach renourishment in the future will be increasingly more challenging. He said rising sea levels are starting to become a serious part of the conversation.

“You either defend or you retreat, and we haven’t quite figured out how to retreat. Defending is not a onetime thing, it’s a long-term commitment and it’s going to become increasingly challenging and we may have to find some new options just to sustain the cost of these things in the future,” Gayes said.

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