Beach projects once again in jeopardy

South Bethany has joined with Bethany Beach in contracting with beach-replenishment consulting firm Marlow & Co., and the support may have proven timelier than either town expected.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released last week the details of its proposed budget for “shoreline protection” projects during the 2006 fiscal year. The Corps oversees such projects and the funding received for them through the federal government, and the budget requests are among those recently sent to Congress by President George W. Bush.

As in previous years, Bush has requested federal funding for shoreline protection projects be eliminated, proposing only $10,000 in construction funding for the entire state, and that specifically targeted to completion of projects from Roosevelt Inlet to Lewes.

The ongoing projects in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, and planned projects from Cape Henlopen to Fenwick Island — including those in Bethany Beach and South Bethany — are not only provided with no further engineering or construction funding, but receive a telltale asterisk.

The meaning of that asterisk is noted as the following: “For construction projects with an asterisk, no project-specific funding is requested. These projects are under consideration for suspension of construction. The budget proposes that funding be provided from a Construction Suspension Fund to cover the costs of suspending, deferring, terminating or completing each ongoing contract, whichever is less.”

The language could be ominous for the coastal towns, if Congress were to accept the president’s budget recommendations as made. Ongoing construction efforts could potentially be halted, and those not yet begun risk being shunted to state, local or private funding sources, if they take place at all.

Fenwick Island is currently anticipating the start of its so-called 50-year beach reconstruction project in the fall of 2005.

The 50-year moniker comes from the established 50-year maintenance agreements with the Corps after such massive reconstruction is complete. Those agreements help ensure the state and local governments will not have to pick up the entire tab for ongoing maintenance efforts to keep the widened beach in its renewed state, at least for the next half-century.

The extensive beach widening and dune improvement project has already been started in the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach project area. And similar work is anticipated for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project area, which is currently in the latter stages of the engineering phase that must precede actual pumping of sand onto the beaches.

Local and state officials have expressed confidence that even that most vulnerable of projects — at least as far as federal funding — would have construction started within the next two years. Lobbying efforts by Marlow & Co., as well as the state’s representatives to Congress, have been discussed as key in making sure that funding would be forthcoming, despite the president’s ongoing requests to the contrary.

The final fate of the Corps funding as relates to the local reconstruction projects will be determined by the budget’s reception in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and that is where lobbying efforts are considered vital.

A similar request for elimination of shoreline-protection funding in the 2005 fiscal year was the subject of strong debate in the latter part of 2004.

In the end, Congress restored federal funding for the construction phases in Lewes, and in Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach. The initial construction funding for Fenwick Island was also restored, and engineering funds for the Bethany Beach-South Bethany project were granted as well.

Town officials and state representatives were hardly shocked by the 2006 budget request, considering the history of such funding in past budgets.

Rep. Michael Castle, contacted for comment by the Coastal Point, said, “The news that the president’s budget does not allow for beach replenishment projects certainly does not come as a surprise. Many presidents, over many budgets, have used the elimination of beach replenishment projects as a way to portray savings; but in reality Congress will always fight to fund these projects.”

Sen. Tom Carper agreed with Castle’s assessment. “The administration has traditionally cut money for beach projects in order to finance some other part of the budget, but Congress has always fought to restore those funds as it writes annual spending legislation. I have no doubt this year will be the same,” Carper said.

Delaware’s representatives to the U.S. Congress have repeatedly stated their determination to fight for federal funding for the projects.

Carper said, “Congress has made a large financial commitment to the beach construction projects in Delaware, and I fully expect that commitment will be maintained this year. Our beaches are a vital part of the state’s economy, and Delaware’s congressional delegation will fight to make sure those projects begun in Bethany, South Bethany and elsewhere are completed as scheduled.”

Castle said he was also determined to maintain federal funding for the Delaware projects.

“A commitment by the federal government is absolutely necessary for shore protection and the continuation of sound environmental programs for our coastal areas,” Castle said. “And while this year’s budget is certainly a little tighter than the past, it just means that we will have to work that much harder to prove our case of why beach replenishment deserves to be a national priority.”

A long-term federal commitment to shoreline protection programs — or, alternatively, annual battles to secure funding in each year’s budget — will likely also be needed to guarantee maintenance by the Corps for the expected 50 years once any initial reconstruction project is complete.

Of the potential threat to the town’s planned 50-year reconstruction project, Bethany Beach Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead said Tuesday, “We will be pursuing this with Marlow & Co. (The funding cuts are) in Bush’s budget, but they still have to get through Congress. We are going to pursue it.”

The preface to the Corps budget information was written by John Paul Woodley Jr., the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. In his preface, Woodley notes that the budget is very much “performance based,” rewarding projects deemed “most rewarding” with high levels of funding and recommending cessation of work be considered for projects of lower priority or lesser “returns.”

The department used its Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to make the determinations of worthiness for funding.

High-priority projects in the budget include dam safety and repair projects, ecological restoration in areas affected by early atomic projects, repairs related to navigation projects, and harbor projects involving commercial traffic, subsistence fishing or public transportation benefits.

Despite the coastal towns’ reliance on their beachfront as a basis for a recreational economy and beach widening as a method of protecting property investment, all of ongoing and planned Delaware reconstruction projects were deemed of low enough efficiency to warrant consideration of their suspension.

Whether Congress takes that recommendation — and Bush’s budget requests — to heart will be seen in the coming months, as work on the final budget progresses through committees and the full consideration of the House and Senate.

Representatives of the area have promised to fight for the funding, and the towns of Bethany Beach and South Bethany have invested in the work of Marlow & Co. to aid in that fight.