Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Beach Nourishment In Texas–-No Gains, Only Losses

Nationwide beaches are eroding.  Ocean storms, hurricanes, sea level rise,  sea walls, jetties, and other natural occurrences and manmade practices result in the erosion of  portions of 95,000 miles of coastline in the United States every year.  As a result, the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually adding sand to dissappearing  beaches–a practice called beach nourishment.

Beaches are precious to everyone including the landowners who own the landward property and the public, which has traditionally enjoyed access to sands below the ordinary high water mark.

But what happens when beaches melt away into the water?  Does the public’s access to the coast follow the high water mark inland?  Or do they lose access to beaches because the coastline has migrated inland to areas previously recognized as private property?

In recent years landowners have contested the public’s continued right to access beaches, perhaps not recognizing that with the loss of public access comes the loss of public interest including public funding for beach nourishment.

In a Florida landowners argued with the state over who had title to beaches that grew broader in response to beach nourishment.   The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the court sided with the state This fall the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Maunalua Bay Beach Ohana 28 v. State of Hawaii, a case in which the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals concluded that ownership of beachfront property includes only a partial right to accreted land.

But  challenges are likely to continue and the outcome is by no means certain.  On November 5, 2010, the Texas Supreme Court issued an opinion in Severance v. Patterson, a challenge to the state’s application of a rolling beach easement under the Texas Open Beaches Act that assured public access to Texas beaches.

In response, on November 16 the state cancelled a $40 million beach nourishment project for Galveston Bay.  It was halted as result of the State Supreme Court decision.  The state cited concerns over  legal repercussions if any of the sand were dumped on private property.

This was not a desirable outcome for landowners who will now need to undertake the costs of protecting their  beachfront  from erosion.   Landowners are likely to pursue construction of hard structures such as sea walls and these are likely to lead to further erosion leading to lawsuits by adjacent property owners and loss of coastal lands including important wildlife habitat.  The public loses access to beaches.

There are no easy answers to the dilemma posed by eroding coastlines particularly when considered in the context of sea level rise and larger natural hazard events like floods and coastal storms that are predicted as part of climate change.  Also, these issues are not confined to saltwater coastlines.  The Great Lakes are subject to rising and falling water levels of several feet in response to changes in precipitation.  Rivers can erode and carve out new channels during major flood events.  There are hard choices ahead.  They will only become harder if people don’t come together to develop solutions.  In the words of Benjamin Franklin:

“We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

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