In Rebuilding NJ’s Beaches, Debate Brews Over Replacing Sand

Two weeks after Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a clear message: “We’re not closing down the New Jersey shore. We’re just going to make it safer. And the Army Corps has the ability to do that,” he declared.

That means engineering beaches. Lots of beaches.

When planners use the phrase "engineered beaches" they're talking about a process that involved dredging sand from a mile offshore, hauling it to a beach, constructing dunes and planting beach grasses. It's all done in an effort to mimic nature — and to protect property.

The Christie administration last Friday said Sandy caused at least $29.4 billion worth of damage to the state overall. The governor has promised to spare no effort to rebuild the state's tourism industry and infrastructure but hasn't provided a figure for how much would be needed for beach restoration. Christie called for the federal government to help fund a major Army Corps of Engineers program on the coast on November 12. He said, "now we need the president and the congress to step up and make sure that they give them the resources that they need to be able to engineer the beaches from one end of New Jersey to the other — so we don't have this kind of disaster again."

Dr. Stewart Farrell, director and founder of the Coastal Research Center at Richard Stockton College, has been studying sites along the shore since 1986. According to a report by the center, from 1986 to 2011 nearly $700 million was spent placing sand on about 55 percent of the New Jersey coast. Dr. Farrell says it was money well-spent.

“My friends in the tourist business say New Jersey earns $30 to $35 billion a year as its tourist industry revenue,” he said. “That’s actually a fairly small price to pay in terms of maintenance of the industry, I would think.”

But Orrin Pilkey says the approach is not sustainable. He's professor emeritus of Geology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. Replenished beaches, he explains, will need new sand, on average, every 3- to 5-years. He says it's getting harder to find sand on the continental shelf. And, he says, the cost is becoming prohibitive.

He argues that for the 21-mile stretch of beach running south from Sandy Hook it will cost $13 million per mile to replenish the sand. "That's a huge amount of money to protect some houses. And maybe we need to start thinking longer term which means moving some houses or not rebuilding some houses that have been destroyed by the storm," Pilkey argued.

But Tom Johnson, a reporter with NJ Spotlight, says that's not likely to happen.

He points to a post-Sandy decision by the state to allow county and local governments to bypass the Department of Environmental Protection permit process in order to quickly replace public infrastructure, like roads and bridges.

"Many of the people whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged include state legislators, influential people in New Jersey who make critical decisions and people with money,” he said. “So my guess is it's going to be moved forward quickly rather than a lengthy and deliberate process."

Opponents say a deliberate process is exactly what's needed and that sand replenishment alone won’t solve the problem. They argue that eventually, the notion of rebuilding homes exactly where they were, on the water's edge won't fly with inland taxpayers who have to keep footing the ever-increasing bill.