Bethany, South Bethany beaches on bubble

If property owners and officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany were expecting the U.S. House of Representatives would help them out by providing federal funding for major beach reconstruction in the two towns, the appropriations bill recently passed by the House proved sadly disappointing.
House Resolution 2419 includes not a penny of funding for the planned Bethany-South Bethany project, which was hoped to start construction in the spring or fall of 2006, ideally with at least $5 million in funding to carry the project through to putting actual sand on the beach.

In Fenwick Island, however, the news is good. HR 2419 included $1.7 million in construction funds for that town’s reconstruction project, due to begin pumping sand onto the beach this September.

Added to an existing $2.1 million in the 2005 fiscal year federal budget and the 35 percent cost share from the state, the funding is expected to be sufficient to complete the project, according to Army Corps of Engineers representatives.

None of the funding initiatives in the bill are set in concrete as yet. The Senate is expected take up its version of the appropriations bill in the next week and could arrive at different figures — including adding funding for the Bethany-South Bethany project.

Once the Senate passes its bill, a conference bill will be developed by members of both bodies, again possibly altering the final figures.

That possibility was on the mind of DNREC replenishment expert Tony Pratt this week as pre-construction meetings commenced for the Fenwick Island project.

Pratt said he and DNREC Secretary John Hughes were carefully monitoring the mark-up process for the Senate appropriations bill and staying in touch with Sens. Joseph Biden and Tom Carper as that process was set to get under way.

According to Pratt, Biden and Carper made no promises of federal funding for the Bethany-South Bethany project but did express “a level of confidence” that funding could be provided in the Senate version of the appropriations bill. Toward that end, Pratt said, both senators have been knocking on doors daily, working to raise support for replenishment projects in the state.

If their efforts are successful, Pratt said, some federal funding would likely remain in the conference version of the bill and thus guarantee something to get the Bethany-South Bethany project started in the coming fiscal year.

The amount allocated could, of course, affect start dates, project size and state funding needs. Pratt had estimated the amount of federal funding needed in the 2006 fiscal year at a minimum of $5 million, with the intention of “bridging” the project and its funding into the 2007 fiscal year.

Those funds would not only pay for getting the dredges started in Bethany Beach and South Bethany but also for pre-construction needs such as the bidding and contract process, and the acquisition of needed property easements.

The target start date for getting sand on the beach in that project would be September 2006, mirroring the Fenwick Island project schedule but one year later.

Bethany Beach and South Bethany officials, concerned that budget goals of President George W. Bush and the current makeup of Congress would eliminate federal funding for the shoreline protection project in the two towns, this year hired beach replenishment lobbying and consulting firm Marlowe & Co. to work on their behalves.

While Pratt expressed a level of comfort in Biden’s and Carper’s ability to have funding allocated in the Senate version of the bill, Marlowe & Co.’s Paul Ordal sounded a note of caution in a recent memo sent to Bethany Beach and South Bethany officials.

Regarding HR 2419, Ordal said, “The (House) subcommittee held firm to its goal of producing a bill that mirrors the president’s FY06 budget. Unfortunately, that leaves most shore protection projects, including yours, without any funding. Overall, the House has decided to cut funding for shore protection nearly 35 percent compared to the Energy and Water bill they produced last year.”

Ordal continued, “(House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee) Chairman (Dave) Hobson reiterated his support for beach nourishment during floor debate on the FY06 bill. He also touched on his disagreements with the administration regarding beach projects in a speech he delivered this week for retiring Corps officials in Washington. Unfortunately, his personal support was not translated into financial support in the House bill,” Ordal added in the memo.

Along with encouraging continuing support for funding in the Senate version of the bill, Ordal said he had emphasized to senate staffers that “we are counting on the Senate to balance the low funding levels in the House appropriations bill.”

On a hopeful note, Ordal opined, “While the Senate and House normally produce bills with slight variations, it is highly unlikely that the Senate bill will reflect the extreme cuts and restrictive fiscal management proposals that the House decided to pursue this year.”

As Ordal noted, both chambers of Congress are trying to curtail domestic spending in the 2006 fiscal year budget. “However,” he said, “I don’t expect the Senate to agree to the limits imposed by the president’s budget or the House bill.”

Those limits included a move away from the “continuing contracts” that have routinely funded beach reconstruction projects over a period of several fiscal years, as well as tightening restrictions on how much freedom the Army Corps of Engineers has to allocate funding not used for a given project.

In a newsletter drafted after the May 24 passage of HR 2419, Marlowe & Co. said the bill attempts to assert more Congressional control over the Corps’ “reprogramming process.”

“Reprogramming allows the Corps limited flexibility to use funding that was allocated for one project and transfer those funds to another project, based on changing project schedules and other project-related needs,” the newsletter read.

Additionally, HR 2419 specifically prohibits funding for a small number of individual projects and set a $2 million or 10 percent (whichever less) cap on reprogramming per project. Additional “reprogramming” moves would require individual approval of Congressional subcommittees.

Along with the attempts to eliminate federal funding for beach reconstruction, such changes could potentially affect any funding remaining after the Lewes, Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island reconstruction projects. The Lewes project, now completed, came in under-budget and those funds have been eyed as a potential source for other beach projects in the state.

Whether these elements of HR 2419 will be mirrored in the Senate or conference versions of the bill is as dependant on the continuing appropriations process as the final amounts of funding for Delaware beach projects.

The fight for federal funding this year has proven even thornier for the state’s coastal towns than in previous years. The 2005 fiscal year budget was settled in favor of the projects in November 2004, with additional funding received in conference bills after initial use of continuing resolutions to fund the federal government through the beginning of the fiscal year in October.

If, in the end, efforts to obtain federal funding for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project in the 2006 fiscal year are unsuccessful, Pratt did hold out a thread of hope.

While his goal is still to get the bidding and contract process going in the coming year for a September 2006 construction start, Pratt said he would be meeting with Hughes to discuss the Senate and conference appropriations bills and determine what the state’s next move would be should federal funding not be in the cards.

Other options could include a smaller project under state funding, providing a limited amount of sand to the project area over a shorter contract period, with hopes that federal funding might be forthcoming in the 2007 fiscal year.

Officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany have also discussed a short-term replenishment in the immediate future, “piggybacked” on the dredging contract already established for Fenwick Island and again paid with state funds.

Pratt said he and Hughes would be “taking stock” of the situation in the coming weeks, with options to be considered based on the final results of the Senate and conference appropriations bills.

With the 2005 summer season in full swing and space on their eroded beaches at a premium, property owners in Bethany Beach and South Bethany will be waiting with baited breath for the outcome of those bills and state decisions on the matter.