The new head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, R.D. James, got a firsthand look at the damage sustained to the coastline following a series of nor’easters this month as he toured Delaware beaches on Tuesday, March 27, with U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).
James, whose official title is Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, took office in January.
The pair was joined by state and local officials at four stops, starting with Bethany Beach. As the group walked Bethany Beach’s boardwalk from the bandstand area, they couldn’t take the closest set of steps down to the beach, because those steps washed away in last week’s nor’easter. (They were later found at 48th Street in Ocean City, Md. — 11 miles to the south — and have since been returned to Bethany Beach, according to Lew Kilmer, Bethany Beach’s vice-mayor.)
Standing on the windswept, severely shortened beach in front of a depleted dune, Carper and James were joined by local officials including Kilmer and South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris, as well as Tony Pratt, outgoing administrator for the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control’s Shoreline & Waterway Management Section, and president of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association.
Pratt explained that delays in beach replenishment are at least partially responsible for the extensive damage to the beaches in recent storms.
“When we go five years, and almost into six years, in a cycle, you’re going to see a lot more losses,” Pratt said.
Rehoboth Dewey, Bethany and South Bethany are on three-year maintenance cycles and Fenwick is on a four-year cycle, Pratt said, so the planned replenishment projects are long overdue.
“It is important to maintain it,” Pratt said. “It’s like putting the tires on your car for safety and you wear the tread over a certain amount of time, and you don’t want to extend that past the expectation of that tire tread. You might start hydroplaning and skidding.”
Carper said the beaches, and the tourism that goes with them, are “our bread and butter in this part of the state,” along with agriculture. “People love to come here; they just love to come to our beaches, and we want to make sure they have something to come to,” Carper said.
“If we didn’t have the dunes, we wouldn’t have much of anything else. It’s a partnership with the towns, the county and the state… and the Army Corps is hugely important,” Carper said to James. “We treasure your support, and we’re thrilled that you’re here.”
Pratt also emphasized the importance of healthy beaches to the economy, in Sussex County as well as the surrounding region.
“The economic drivers are just tremendous,” he said. “We think about [people like] the lifeguards that are directly related to the beach, but if you think about the travel corridors that extend from (Washington) D.C. and Philadelphia and Baltimore to get here… tremendous businesses have grown up along the way for people to get here, and the destination is the beach,” Pratt said.
Pratt added that a wide range of jobs, from lifeguards to carpenters to spa attendants —“They’re all part of the economy that’s grown up around beach recreation, and it’s a ripple effect that’s just phenomenal.”
James said this was his first visit to Delaware’s coast in his new position, “And I wanted to come to the coastal region to learn more about it. I’ll be going to the harbors and the ports later, but I wanted to come here.
“It’s obvious to me — we just came from the coffee shop in there — this is a family resort. That restaurant was full in there, and it was all families,” James said.
He agreed that the beaches are “an economic driver for this state and this area,” adding that he believes having beaches to come to “helps the quality of life of people in the surrounding areas that come here and vacation. They come here to relax and enjoy their families. I think it’s a wonderful thing, and I think the beach renourishment and the dune rebuilding is a very important part of this, to keep this available for our people, and I think we’re doing a wonderful job.”
“I’m Tom Carper, and I approved this message,” Carper said with a laugh.
James explained that funding for the shoreline protection projects comes partially from “the president’s funding, the president’s budget. And then the other part comes from the Congress. The Congress tries to establish work plans above the president’s budget each year,” James said.
“They’re trying to get back on a two-year cycle of the Water Resource Development Act, and, of course, there are competing interests all over the United States for those,” the Army Corps leader said. “We at the Corps and the administration try to weed out the most important and prioritize those and try to spend every dollar we can efficiently and effectively to get the most bang for the buck.”
Officials acknowledge timing, focus on need
“We understand and we appreciate the concern” of merchants and businesspeople regarding the scheduling of this year’s beach replenishment during the summer season,” Carper said of the work, which is now scheduled to begin in May in Bethany Beach and continue through mid-July in Fenwick Island, but he added that the focus needs to be on the completion of the project in order to preserve the beaches and protect the beach towns from storm damage.
Carper said it is a matter of “short-term pain, long-term gain. So bear with us,” he said.
“Part of the problem is, the real problem is this ocean is rising,” Carper said. “One of the reasons it’s rising is our climate is getting warmer. Ice is melting up to the north, and while we want to make sure that we have protected our towns up and down the coast, we also want to make sure we’re addressing the root cause” of the problems, he said.
“We’re seeing here the symptoms of the problem,” Carper said.
Carper is the ranking member on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Water Resources Development Act. The WRDA authorizes the funding for the Corps of Engineers.
“We are currently in the process of drafting that bill with our majority counterparts, and a lot of that language is essential to how we’re going to restore our coast and how we’re going to help the Corps do a better job of prioritizing,” said John Kane, Carper’s senior governmental affairs advisor.
“When Secretary James was confirmed, one of the key points he made was that we need to get the Corps back to work, and we need to have them doing as much as possible wherever possible,” Kane said.
“What Sen. Carper is advocating for is making sure that the benefits and the costs of these projects are more appropriately weighed, so that we can see things like beach renourishment happen immediately,” Kane added.
Lt. Col. Kristen Dahle, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District, said, “We’ve been working very closely with all the dredging companies on the coast, to get good prices…to make sure that everything’s fair, to make sure we’re not overpaying for what’s happening on the beaches here. We give them a longer time period to be able to complete their mission.”
“I’ll be honest,” Dahle said, “every dredge along the eastern border… is actively being used, so they go from one mission to the next mission to the next mission. This has been a hard year, you know — the Corps’ been working in a lot of areas.
“Storms that happened in the fall have affected dredging all throughout the fall and the winter, and have pushed a lot of our projects back. For every one of those nor’easters, I would say that we lost about a week,” Dahle said. “So we’ve been working closely with our agencies, to keep it on track, making sure those dredges don’t go to another project,” she said.
Dahle said that her office has to compete with emergency needs in other areas, and that “We’ve been defending those dredges to stay here. But we have to work across the nation and make sure that people are safe,” she said.
As for the timing of the projects, she said, “We can’t say ‘don’t do it during the summer’ because then we wouldn’t get good pricing and we wouldn’t get the pricing we need.”
Dahle said that, while there are penalties built into dredging contracts for going beyond the 240-day window from the time the contract is activated, “We take into consideration weather, and we take into consideration extenuating circumstances.”
From Bethany Beach, Carper and James were scheduled to travel to Rehoboth Beach, where replenishment has been done more recently than in Bethany Beach and thus where the beach has not suffered as much damage in recent storms. The group was also set to tour the Port of Wilmington and a proposed port site in Edgemoor later in the day.