Sea levels are rising, and storms are threatening to erode all the sandy beaches that we know and love – that’s why we need beach nourishment.
This process is a result of stakeholders attempting to protect valuable coastal property.
Yet, while there are arguments for this route, there are also some consequences of it.
Here’s what you should know about beach nourishment.
1. What is beach nourishment?
Beach nourishment is the process of placing additional sediment on a beach or in the nearshore.
The reasoning for beach nourishment is that a wider and higher beach can provide storm protection for coastal structures.
It also creates new habitats and enhances the beach for recreation.
Beach nourishment is often called “beach filling” or “soft armoring.”
Soft armoring techniques avoid the issues that hard armoring techniques like seawalls create.
2. Why is beach nourishment done?
Beach nourishment is done to address coastal erosion.
Here are the causes of coastal and beach erosion.
It’s important to note that beaches erode both naturally and due to human impact.
The natural cause of erosion is storm activity.
Storm surges will elevate waves higher on the beach and allow them to attach and erode coastal dunes.
Humans are another key reason that erosion occurs on beaches.
Although seawalls are intended to prevent coastal erosion and flooding, they can actually create issues with erosion because they lock up sand dunes.
Additionally, coastal structures created by humans like ports and harbors will prevent longshore transport that moves sediment along the coast.
Furthermore, dam construction can interfere with the natural beach sediment flows.
These types of activities can all create issues with erosion.
3. What are the consequences of beach nourishment?
There are dozens of consequences of beach nourishment.
We’ve broken them down into before, during, and after.
The new sand being moved to the beach may or may not be the same grain size and chemical makeup as the natural sand, which can change the habitat that animals rely on.
New, added sand is often mined from riverbeds or places underwater.
Mining not only negatively alters those environments, but it also affects its use for future projects.
Filling beaches with a massive amount of sand can kill animals currently living on the beach.
Moving additional sand onto the beach causes it to become a major construction zone which can disrupt ecosystems and disturb wildlife.
If beach nourishment coincides with the reproduction of some animals, then that population won’t have the ability to repopulate until the following year.
For example, sand crabs start as free-floating larvae that drift through the ocean and then into the beach.
Beach filling can disrupt their process.
It is unknown how much time a beach ecosystem needs to recover from a single beach-filling episode.
Even if the fill sand is the right size and type, this can remain an issue resulting in slowed recovery for the ecosystem.
A beach fill can cause a catastrophic loss of intertidal prey resources for wildlife (i.e., shorebirds), which means they’d have to travel to another beach to find sustenance.
Species that do not reproduce often (“long-lived” species) can take decades to recover from beach nourishment.
If beach animals carry their young in their pouches (ex: amphipods and isopods), then they’ll depend on the resident population for recovery.
They may require human assistance to return to the sand-filled beach.
The shape of the sand grain influences how fast it will erode. This can alter the beach’s shape.
The ocean will begin to erode sand, and the water offshore will become muddy as a result.
Beach animals that rely on clear, clean water (like clams) will die off in large numbers.
Eroding sand can also wreak havoc in other ways like clogging the mouths of estuaries, altering vital tidal exchanges, and covering kelp forests, rocky intertidal reefs, and seagrass beds.
4. Is beach nourishment effective?
Unfortunately, while beach nourishment may seem like a great option to keep beaches in stellar shape, it’s not a long-term solution.
Nourishment will protect coastal structures for as long as the sand lasts, but ultimately, erosion will win over.
Erosion from waves, storms, and rising sea levels don’t disappear overnight.
These waves will continue to impact beaches and sand until it erodes and moves down the coast and offshore.
If beach nourishment is used as a method for repair, then you must be prepared for renourishment.
This can be frustrating for communities because it isn’t an inexpensive process and it impacts ecosystems.
5. Is beach nourishment a soft armoring technique?
Yes, beach nourishment is a soft armoring method.
Soft armoring involves the creation or restoration of a natural shoreline system using nature-based shoreline management techniques.
Soft armoring techniques are non-permanent and generally use a combination of native plantings, anchor drift logs, gravel berms, sand replenishment, and site contouring.
Although soft armoring looks and feels natural, it’s designed to reduce the erosion that is impacting the environment.
However, these methods can still negatively affect the environment.
The good news is that they’re often far less damaging than hard armoring.
6. Which is the best approach: seawalls, beach nourishment, or retreat?
As noted above, beach nourishment is a method of soft armoring while seawalls are a method of hard armoring.
Hard armoring is the traditional approach to shoreline protection.
This method includes the construction of bulkheads, seawalls, dikes, tide gates, groins, and other structures.
Hard armoring is often the go-to way to protect valuable development and essential infrastructure from coastal flooding and erosion.
As sea levels continue to rise, many communities will rely on hard armoring to continue to use the land.
That said hard armoring techniques like seawalls have numerous disadvantages that must be taken into consideration.
These drawbacks include:
Horizontal and vertical access restrictions
Loss of sand supply to the beach from armoring backshore
Placement losses with the construction of a seawall
Passive and active erosion
Generally speaking, experts believe that nourishment is preferable to hard armoring.
That said, there is a third option that is challenging in practice but preferable to both.
This option is called managed retreat.
Managed retreat is a coastal management strategy that permits the shoreline to move inland rather than trying to maintain it where it is with structural engineering.
Although this is a relatively new approach, it is becoming popular among policymakers and community managers as sea levels rise.
The idea of “holding the line” is a losing battle in many communities.
This method requires a great deal of coastal planning, relocation of residents, buy-back and buy-out programs, habitat restoration, designated no-build areas, development regulation, and replacement of built environment with green space.
Managed retreat is expensive, but it can save communities money over time.
Unlike the hard and soft armoring approaches, there is no need to continuously take action.
It is a more sustainable long-term solution.
Unfortunately, it does require a lot of planning, and it can prompt pushback and frustration from the community due to misunderstanding.
7. What are the best practices?
If beach nourishment is deemed the best option for a community, use the following best practices.
These are important because they are the least environmentally impactful way possible to complete a project.
Find and use sand that is a similar composition to the natural sand (important factors include grain size and chemical makeup).
Place sand up the coast and in the nearshore zone.
This will allow the waves to naturally move it onto and along the beach.
Plow the sand immediately after nourishment.
This will prevent it from becoming so compact that it’s inhospitable to beach animals that rely on the sand to serve as their ecosystem.
Complete several smaller beach nourishment projects rather than a single larger project.
This will allow more beach animals to survive despite the trauma they’re experiencing in their environment.
Remember, your goal is to keep the project’s footprint as small as possible.
Separate nourishment projects so the slowest reproducing beach organism can recolonize and reproduce.
8. What are the advantages of beach nourishment?
Why are so many community planners and environmental advocates drawn to beach nourishment?
Here are the benefits of taking this route.
Widens the beach
Have you noticed that your favorite beach is dwindling in size?
This may be the result of a variety of factors: storms, climate change, rising sea levels, and a diminishing supply of sand.
As a result, beach nourishment is the method used to increase beach width.
Protects the beach and shields from storms
A wide and nourished beach will absorb wave energy, prevent structural damage, and protect upland areas from flooding during storms.
It also helps to mitigate erosion because there is more sand.
However, this is only a temporary solution because the sand will eventually wear away.
Increases the land value of nearby properties
Homes and land near nourished beaches are higher than those near non-nourished beaches.
Not only are these beaches nicer, but they are also less likely to flood.
Grows economy through tourism and recreation
A nourished beach is a beach that people want to visit.
This process makes beaches wider and more welcoming for both tourism and recreation.
Beach nourishment helps restore habitats for birds, shellfish, and sea turtles.
Some people think of just animals in the water at the beach, but many others rely on the sand for their homes.
Nourishing the beach can give these animals a place to nest and feed.
However, it can also bury certain animals or make it difficult for existing organisms to continue to live.
9. What are the disadvantages?
Beach nourishment is a better solution to coastal erosion than many other options out there, but it isn’t perfect.
Here are some of the cons that you should remember when you’re deciding if this is the right option for a particular beach or community.
Added sand can erode because of storms or other causes
The new sand isn’t invincible.
The same reason the beach eroded in the first place can cause the new sand to erode, and it will over time.
This is just a temporary solution.
Expensive and requires repeated application
Since 1923, the U.S. has spent $9 billion to rebuild beaches.
According to a 2018 study, the federal government spends about $100 million annually.
Local and state governments also pay about $100 million.
This is an inexpensive and non-permanent fix.
If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to do it time and time again.
This is worth keeping in mind if you’re considering it — what’s your end goal? Are you willing to do it forever?
Restricted access during nourishment
Beach nourishment takes anywhere from 3 to 6 days along a particular stretch of shoreline depending on a variety of factors.
During that time, access to the public is restricted.
For communities that rely on the beach for tourism and recreation, it can be difficult to figure out when this process should occur.
Destroys and buries marine life
As noted above, beach nourishment is NOT a perfectly environmentally friendly process.
It can destroy and bury marine life just as much as it can create the opportunity for it.
A great example of this comes in the form of sea turtles.
Newly deposited sand will make it more difficult for turtles to dig their nests. However, it can also create a better habitat for them.
When you’re deciding whether this is the right process for the beach in question, you must weigh this con.
You’ll affect the wildlife and biodiversity in question. Is it worth it?
Difficulty finding the correct sand
In an ideal world, you’ll be able to find additional sand that matches the chemistry and grain size of the beach.
However, this isn’t always possible.
Mining sand from lakes, riverbeds, coastlines, and deltas can be a messy business, and it can also impact those ecosystems when it’s done.
Sometimes the right sand can be found and sometimes it can’t.
The material you choose to use will have short-term and long-term implications well after the process is over.
Beach nourishment can be a suitable solution to coastal erosion depending on the community.
However, it’s important to recognize that it isn’t perfect.
There are environmental drawbacks that occur if the type of sand used isn’t quite right, and beach life can be affected regardless of how careful you are.
Additionally, unlike managed retreat, beach nourishment will always be a repetitive process because the effects of erosion are only mitigated rather than removed.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.