Tomorrow a bill will be introduced into the NC House that allows the use of terminal groins to protect private property along the coast, overturning the 1979 ban on hardened structures along the coast. Although NC would join all of the other eastern seaboard states in allowing such protections, the bill, if passed, would also end a long history of attempting to maintain a natural coastline. This natural coastline is why the Outer Banks have become such a popular tourist destination, bringing millions into the state economy each year.
So why might North Carolina leaders turn their back on historical decisions? This year’s General Assembly is under a new majority – for the first time since 1898, led by Republicans. Rising populations along the coast are using this as an opportunity to demand more permanent solutions to shoreline erosion. Previous strategies of beach restoration, inlet channel realignment, and sandbagging are no longer adequate to coastal property owners. However, though terminal groins may seem like an easy solution, they are not as simple as they seem at first glance. It’s these nuances that make them a really bad idea, both for maritime ecology we’ve worked so hard to protect and for the wallets of North Carolinian taxpayers.
Shoreline hardening drastically changes natural sediment dynamics of the coast, where beaches upstream of the groin or rock jetty collect sediment and beaches downstream are deprived of their natural sediment sources, therefore shrinking. In short, the hardened structures don’t prevent erosion, just shift where it occurs. Therefore, groin and jetty programs are usually paired with beach renourishment in order to hold the sediment in one place as best they can. Renourishment adds another whole host of environmental issues to the table, including resuspending toxins in offshore sediments, disturbing bottom habitat, and disrupting nesting beaches for shorebirds and sea turtles. According to the state’s Coastal Resource Commission study on terminal groins, renourishment and dune formation associated with groin building prevents overwash and natural inlet dynamics from occurring, decreasing natural habitat on the island for many species including the endangered piping plover and sea turtle species that nest there.
This study also describes a general shift from our current sandy, benthic ecological community to a rocky one that North Carolina doesn’t normally have. If you think you won’t miss the sand and the diving on rocky bottoms might be better, try forgoing flounder, croaker, spot, shrimp, clams, blue crabs, and other local species that require inshore sandy or grassy bottoms for nursery habitat. Due to the direct conflict of terminal groins with the state’s commitment to the Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, the CRC concluded that terminal groins are a bad idea. They went on to say that the fact that not all properties would be protected further supported their conclusion that terminal groins are not the way to go.
In addition, NC scientists have put together a statement opposing the bill on ecologic, economic, and management principles. Some of their comments weren’t exactly the most diplomatic, but certainly got the point across: “S832 would permit the construction of “terminal groins”. As proposed, these structures could/would be constructed at inlets or “on an isolated segment of shoreline where it will not interrupt the natural movement of sand. In other words not just at inlets.”
Finally, even ignoring environmental concerns, terminal groins represent a huge tax burden to North Carolinians that outweighs the tax benefits of large coastal properties. At current real estate tax rates, the costs of installing and maintaining terminal groins over 30 years is 4 times higher than revenues from threatened coastal properties. Combining projections of costs, tax revenues, changing property values, etc, the overall costs are expected to be 10 times higher than benefits over 30 years. Such an analysis begs the question of how the General Assembly could justify such a bill at a time when it is supposed to be cutting costs.
Judging from the comments on the recent article in the Tideland News about the issue, residents know more than they’re given credit for about the issue and the groins are seen as yet another way to benefit the few at a cost to the many. Many of our public beaches don’t need hardening because no one lives there – so why do private beaches need protecting?
Want to get involved? Inlet Solutions and NC Coastal Federation have loads more information. Take a minute to call your house representatives and tell them you don’t want terminal groins in your state (find your rep here)!