Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
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Top 5 Threats to the World’s Beaches (and a Systemic Solution)

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderProfessors Orrin Pilkey and Andrew Cooper are writing what promises to be an outstanding book. In The Last Beach (to be published this summer by Duke University Press), they describe the top five threats to beaches around the world. Even a quick overview of these threats suggests a strategy for confronting the degradation and loss of beaches. It’s no surprise that a comprehensive, long-term beach protection strategy requires significant changes to our economic system — a system that has overdeveloped and polluted beaches to the extent that they have become unhealthy places to swim or even play in the sand.

Beach Threat #1 — Physical Alteration of the Natural Shoreline. Overdevelopment of the shoreline with miles and miles of high-rise buildings can cause pollution and when threatened by storms, create demand for seawalls. If the demand is met and seawalls are built, over time they end up destroying the beach — the very asset that attracted visitors in the first place.

Beach Threat #2 — Polluted Runoff from Urban Areas and Malfunctioning Sewage Plants. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every year up to 3.5 million people in the U.S. become ill because of contact on beaches with raw sewage that has overflowed from local sewers. Most of the illnesses are minor, but some are very serious. 2011 saw a total of 23,481 beach closure days because of concerns about health from water pollution.

Beach Threat #3 — Contaminated Sand. The scientific literature indicates that beach sand is more polluted than the adjacent waters. Researchers found that fecal bacteria on three beaches in South Florida were 2 to 23 times more common on the wet intertidal beach than in the water column. The concentrations of fecal bacteria on the upper dry beach above normal high tide were 30 to 460 times the concentration in the adjacent surf zone. Just a few decades ago, you could build a sand castle that didn’t that didn’t need to be disinfected.

Beach Threat #4 — Unsound Practices and Ill-Suited Uses. Driving on beaches and mining beaches for sand (done in Morocco, Singapore, and some Caribbean islands) can destroy wildlife habitat, impair the natural productivity of the coast, and ruin tourism.

Beach Threat #5 — Engineering the Beach after Weather Disasters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to come to the rescue in an effort to protect buildings on the coast by means of seawalls, jetties, and sand replenishment, but these measures are usually maladaptive. Pilkey and other scientists have found that when beaches are eroding, seawalls tend to destroy the beach by causing the sand to disappear in the deeper offshore waters.

Polluted vs. pristine beach

Different types of beaches result from different types of economies. Photos by Len Matthews (l) and Adam Fagan (r).

Many beaches are suffering at the hands of these five threats — thousands have been temporarily closed around the world each year due to poor water quality. The expected increase in storm intensity in coming decades, sea level rise, and increased population pressure are likely to cause even more pollution in the future. And individuals and governments will face massive expenses as they seek to protect or reconstruct buildings on the coast. It is a road to bankruptcy, but a road already being traveled by Congress. Earlier this year, in the midst of a vicious fight to find $100 billion in budget cuts, Congress passed legislation with over $50 billion to help New York and New Jersey rebuild after Hurricane Sandy.

Only an economy that externalizes environmental and social costs would underwrite coastal development practices that are pushing beaches to the brink of extinction. Any strategy to combat these threats must address the economic drivers behind the problems.

A true-cost, steady state economy would conserve beaches and limit the build-out, because it would account for the long-term value of natural beach ecosystems, whether for recreation and tourism, public health and spiritual refreshment, or fish and shellfish. These values are consistently absent from economic calculations that focus on quarterly returns. Instead, today’s economic philosophy — the philosophy of growth at all costs — disregards the pollution of sand and water caused by overdevelopment and directs billions of tax dollars to shoreline engineering projects that ultimately eliminate sandy beaches.

Pilkey reports that almost all problems with beaches — from erosion to lack of replenishment, and from degradation to pollution — are related to development. Less beachfront development means less of these problems, while allowing for the the possibility that more beautiful beaches will be around for our children and grandchildren to visit.

Lest readers think a paradigm shift in beach management as advocated by Pilkey and Cooper is pie-in-the-sky, it’s worth noting that the U.K. made such a shift over half a century ago. Today the biggest coastal landowner is a charity called the National Trust. Since the 1960s the Trust has been purchasing scenic and pristine sections of the British coast, and its policy is not to interfere with natural processes via construction and coastal engineering schemes. Now that’s a development on the beach worth celebrating.