Millions of us went to the beach this summer, and it is unlikely even a handful of us considered whether we were on a restored beach (there’s a good chance you were) and what goes into making it possible (a lot). The aspect we want to focus on today is the environmental review such projects typically go through in order to be constructed.
Beach restoration is one of the most environmentally friendly methods of protecting a beach, and one of the reasons for that is the care in which local, state and federal agencies take to ensure restoration projects are as environmentally sound as possible. Every beach project requires extensive environmental review, permits from state and federal agencies and post-construction monitoring. More than 40 years of successful beach projects has resulted in an extensive environmental knowledge base scientists and regulators can draw upon.
Regulatory agencies look at restoration projects through a specific lens based on their area of expertise; for example, it is no surprise that National Marine Fisheries Service looks at a project for potential impact on fisheries. Each agency has a comprehensive and systematic framework to review projects, and it is up to the applicant to prove they can conduct a project in an environmentally friendly manner.
Often before the first grain of sand is pumped onto a beach, years of study and millions of dollars in research and environmental documentation have taken place to ensure the project is environmentally compatible.
Sand is one thing the regulatory agencies look at carefully. Most of us just think sand is sand, but sand can have different grain sizes and colors. This isn’t a “one size fits all” kind of deal. Instead, the goal of any project engineer is to place sand on the beach that comes as close as possible to mimicking the sand that is already there. Wildlife is used to that kind of sand, so they respond better to the “new” beach if similar sand is used.
Sand also tends to last longer on beaches where it is compatible in terms of grain size – too fine washes away more quickly, too coarse impacts the beach ecology for the worse. From a human perspective, we also have a certain kind of sand we’re used to (in terms of color), but color is also important to nesting sea turtles in that color plays an important role in the temperature of nests, which influences the sex of the hatchlings.
The permitting agencies analyze both the existing beach and the location where the sand will be removed (known as the borrow site). They want to be sure the borrow site will not endure long-term damage as a result of dredging, and that steps are taken to help a more rapid recovery to its former state and habitat.
Agencies also look at the benefits of the sand put on the beach. Often a highly eroded beach no longer provides adequate nesting, feeding or resting habitat for animals. Putting back sand that’s compatible and protective of the beach habitat keeps the beach a healthy place for critters to nest and rest.
The potential impacts of a restoration project on listed threatened or endangered species are also studied carefully. The applicant must show they are not going to harm that species, or that they will take steps to avoid the potential harm. A good example of this: If a project will be constructed during sea turtle nesting season, the contractor will have observers on site to see if (and where) sea turtles are nesting or sea turtle are hatching. If so, steps will be taken to protect the female turtle or the hatchlings, as the case may be.
Finally, once a project is complete, environmental monitoring is required to make sure there are no long-term impacts and to increase the knowledge base of how restored beaches respond. Such monitoring can continue for years, to track the recovery of the beach, the borrow site, and any habitat or species possibly impacted. This is also where rules can be refined or revised for future projects, once the obvious or inadvertent effects (positive as well as negative) are documented and researched.
This level of environmental oversight has made restoration projects a far more benign beach activity while it has advanced coastal science and ecological knowledge. It’s just one of the many ways beach restoration is a complex (and often complementary) coastal activity – and why you can find yourself on a restored beach without even knowing it.
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