News13 investigates the value of beach renourishment

GARDEN CITY, SC (WBTW) – Renourishment is not a word you will find in the dictionary, but at the beach it is a word so widely used now, it often goes without saying that renourishment is the process of putting sand back onto the beach after erosion. It is also called beach replenishment.

The Grand Strand’s first major renourishment project came after Hurricane Hugo washed away significant amounts of sands in 1989. Since then the beach has actually widened, thanks to some additional renourishment, paired with a relatively slow erosion rate in the Grand Strand.

“These last two years of storms have really bit into that a good bit. There’s still a good bit more sand here than there was before the first renourishment, large-scale renourishment project back in the 90’s,” explained Dr. Paul Gayes, a coastal oceanographer who is also a the director of the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University.

He has spent years studying the Grand Strand shore.  The results he has noticed have also been encouraging to local, state and federal leaders, including U.S. Representative Tom Rice who says he will be advocating to ensure federal money stays on track for another renourishment.

“I’m going to do what I can to make sure the federal government lives up to their obligation,” Rice said. “Overall I think renourishment has been successful.”

However, the October storm last year and Hurricane Matthew this year caused major erosion.

The Grand Strand’s beaches are scheduled for a renourishment project within the next two years. The renourishment would happen in three phases:  first, on the south strand in 2017, then two more phases are slated to cover the central and north strand in 2018.

The phases have a budget up to 24 million dollars each, and local leaders have said they all need to be done sooner rather than later. Leaders from Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Horry County have requested all three phases be done in 2017. In addition to restoring the beach sooner, they also believe it would save millions of dollars if the equipment doesn’t have to be set up along the coast more than once.

That push for earlier renourishment shows the last one did not last as long as some people expected.

“Renourishment really is kind of a midterm solution to a long term problem,” Gayes said.

He points to Hunting Island South Carolina where renourishment could not keep erosion at bay, and the ocean washed away several cabins. North Topsail Beach, North Carolina, is another example where renourishment has not kept up.

Gayes certainly does not see erosion threatening many buildings along the Grand Strand in the near future, but it is a long term concern as measurements show the ocean level rising.

“It’s coming up this much a year on an average basis,” Gayes said as he held up his figures just slightly apart. “It’s not a heck of a lot when you think about it, but it adds up.”

The south end of Garden City beach is another example. Some areas have no beach at high tide, because the waves go all the way to sea walls. As the ocean continues to wash away more and more sand as it rises gradually over the years, the oceanfront homes are not moving back. That leaves a beach that can only be enjoyed at low tide – something that will not attract many tourists.

Gayes fears that in the next 50 to a hundred years, even certain low-lying areas that do get a renourishment may see similar results. He believes with climate change leading to more frequent big storms, renourishments could lose more and more ground and need to be done more and more often in those areas.

“Money and resources are not infinite. So it starts to challenge, can we do this everywhere, and if we will do that how are we going to pay for it,” Gayes said.

“Your options are: you defend the beach – renourishment, or you allow the beach to be where it wants to be, and you can keep development out of the way,” he added.

The idea of moving development away from the beach is a hard sell to Congressman Rice. With so much infrastructure and real estate development it is hard to imagine if it would even be possible to move back some development.

“Once things are developed you tend to want to protect them,” he said.

Based on what he has seen, Rice feels strongly that renourishments have protected the Grand Strand’s cash cow.

“To say that it’s not sustainable, it certainly has been sustainable since Hugo,” Rice explained.

As an example, he points to the sand fences put up after Hugo that were only recently uncovered during Matthew. He feels it is money well spent if tens of millions of dollars pay for renourishments that last for years, when just a single year of tourism produces hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If it lasts ten years or if it lasts eight years, that is an incredible investment,” Rice said.

“I think those beaches on the Grand Strand are our bread and butter, and that the little bit of money – relatively – that we spend on renourishment pays for itself a hundred fold in terms of… even more than that… a thousand fold in terms of tax revenue, in terms of job creation, in terms of quality of life for the people who live on the Grand Strand and the people who visit the Grand Strand and the people who benefit from those tax revenues around the state,” he explained.

Still Gayes worries it may become unreasonable to continue pouring sand and money into vulnerable low-lying areas.

“Clearly there are places for any number of reasons we’re going to want to put more effort in defending, but there may be place we should be seriously thinking should we be forcing ourselves to defend these areas knowing how vulnerable they are and knowing how expensive it is now and going to be,” Gayes said.

He admits there is no “silver bullet” that will always be a solution for erosion. He believes government leaders should consider now if every part of the Grand Strand is worth a perpetual investment in renourishment.

Moving development and other options

South Carolina does have some policies in place that prevent development in certain beachfront areas. Gayes served on a statewide committee that supported those restrictions, and it also noted renourishment is usually a better option than sea walls or other hard structures.

That committee – Shoreline Change Advisory Committee – also pushed for the state to use some money, not for renourishment, but instead to move some development away from the shore. The concept is called a “retreat” policy. The state’s restrictions on development in some areas align with that policy, but committee member published a report that also recommends funding for “a broader range of beach management options, including structure relocation, land acquisition, and planning proposals.”