Coons presses Corps for emergency beach repair funding

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) last week asked a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official if funds left over from Hurricane Sandy might be diverted to emergency repairs of the beaches and dunes at three of Delaware’s beach towns.

During a hearing by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on March 2, Coons questioned Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for Civil Works, about funding for emergency work to repair beaches and dunes in Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and South Bethany in the wake of two damaging storms this past fall and winter.

“We have several world-class beaches — they are a key driver of tourism in our region and they are essential to the economy of Southern Delaware,” Coons said. “We had a significant storm recently that imposed some very hard damage,” added Coons, who visited the beaches to see the damage after the January nor’easter.

“We are grateful for previous investment in beach nourishment that protected those beaches, but most of what had been provided in recent years was torn away, and that’s left a lot of our coastal communities and their infrastructure exposed,” he told Darcy.

Coons said he hoped that federal Flood Control & Coastal Emergencies Act funds left over from Hurricane Sandy could be used to repair damage to Delaware beaches from the more recent storms.

Darcy replied that the Army Corps is still in the process of assessing the extent of the damage and cost of repair.

“I believe that those (funds) can only be used for damages that were incurred by Superstorm Sandy, as opposed to subsequent storms. But, again, that is something we’ll check into, if need be for that — if the need for the repairs is unmet.”

Darcy did agree that the coastal emergencies fund is the most likely source for federal funding, just not necessarily the leftover Sandy funding.

Coons concluded his questioning on beach repair funding by saying, “It is disappointing that the administration’s funding request is insufficient for what are the likely needs of the whole country,” adding that he vowed to continue “to support needed increased funding that will make it possible for you to address the needs of Delaware and many other states.”

The Senate hearing took place about a week after officials from coastal towns all over the country arrived in Washington, D.C., for the annual meeting of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA).

One local official, attending the three-day meeting for the first time, concurred with Coons that federal funding is needed to ensure the safety and stability of Delaware’s beach towns.

“I wanted to learn about the association,” said Fenwick Island Town Manager Merritt Burke of his trip to the nation’s capital on Feb. 23-25. “It was definitely worthwhile,” he said of the trip, which also included visits by coastal town officials with their respective members of Congress.

As an avid surfer, Burke said he understands the ever-changing nature of the shoreline.

“We lost 30 to 40 percent of our dunes, but that sand is sitting right off our shore.” He said he believes in the philosophy of beach replenishment in general, because, to put it simply, “When you put sand on the beach, it protects the infrastructure.”

Burke said, however, that he is learning that the process of maintaining the beaches and keeping them stable enough to withstand storm damage is anything but simple.

“It’s very complicated, and it takes a lot of money,” he said.

One eye-opener for Burke at the ASPBA meeting was just how many other communities are looking for federal money for their own projects.

“You learn that every community in the country is facing sediment erosion issues,” he said. Burke said he also learned that beach preservation is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. “What works in New York does not necessarily work in Delaware,” he said.

Of the agency responsible for planning and undertaking beach replenishment projects, Burke said “the Army Corps has a lot on its plate.”

In addition to funding “key projects,” the ASBPA set forth the following items in its wish list for Congress this year:

• Pursuit of long-term coastal funding, through authorization of federal agencies to pursue public-private partnerships with states, local government and the private sector, moving shoreline stabilization efforts from being “segmented or crisis-driven to being coordinated and anticipatory;”

• Passage of a Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) this year, which would get project authorization back on a “predictable and professional” two-year cycle; and

• Funding more comprehensive coastal studies, such as the North Atlantic study done in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which developed a cohesive strategy for integrating shore protection with estuary and environmental restoration.