Man – and money – against the ocean

The beach is back.

For a couple of years, John O'Hare couldn't walk out from his beachfront condominium at high tide. There was no beach. Erosion had eaten away the sand and the 18th hole of the golf course at Wild Dunes Resort, and was threatening two houses and six condominium complexes, including the Seascape where O'Hare owns a 2-bedroom unit.

Wild Dunes, a private gated community, hauled in tens of thousands of sand bags to protect the buildings, and the sand bags washed away, too.

“It all happened so fast,” O'Hare said. “It was amazing. Something had to be done.”

Despite objections from people who didn't want public money used to protect private property, local and state governments agreed to pay $3million toward a $10 million beach renourishment project. This summer, 845,000 cubic yards of sand was piped in from three miles out on the ocean floor.

The new beach stretches about a mile and three-fourths, from a public part of the island at 53rd Avenue, along the length of Wild Dunes, to Dewees Inlet.

“It's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” said O'Hare, who lives in Connecticut and has owned property at Wild Dunes for 23 years. “This is more sand than I can ever remember having.”

But will it last?

At least 10 years, predicted Tim Kana, a geologist hired to oversee the project.

At most two, said Andy Coburn, an academic who studies shorelines. Less, Coburn said, if a hurricane blows through.

One thing is certain: The beach renourishment project on this island 12 miles east of Charleston is not the end of the tug-of-war between man and nature. If you have ever vacationed on the Carolinas coast, you know what happens: After renourishment, erosion eventually returns.

It's happened at Myrtle Beach, Emerald Isle, Folly Beach. Hunting Island near Beaufort, S.C., has been renourished eight times since 1968; Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington, Coburn said, has been renourished 23 times since 1939.

This isn't the first time either for the Isle of Palms. A part of the same stretch of beach was renourished in the 1980s, Kana said, though with about a third as much sand. Most of that project, he said, held up well for 10 years and he expects this bigger project to hold up even better.

‘Nature will win'

Beaches migrate. It's natural. So is erosion.

At Isle of Palms, the migration began with a sandbar at the mouth of the inlet near the northern end of the island. The sandbar broke free, which happens to sandbars in inlets, and waves gradually washed it toward shore. As the sandbar moved inland, it sheltered the beach directly in front of it from the pounding of the waves. That part of the beach built up, drawing sand away from the beach on either side.

The erosion on either side of the sandbar was so rapid, by June 2007 the six condominium buildings were standing in the surf.

Isle of Palms had a problem.

But the beach didn't cause the problem, said Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University. It was doing what beaches do. The problem, he said, was caused because Wild Dunes built too close to a fragile part of nature: a tidal inlet.

“If I were king of South Carolina, we'd move those condos back, let them fall in or demolish them,” Pilkey said. “If they really think they're going to hold those houses in place, they will have to renourish the beach again, and again and again.”

Linda Tucker, Isle of Palms city manager, said that it would have been a public safety hazard to let hundreds of condominiums fall into the ocean.

And Kana, president of Coastal Science and Engineering, said it would have been much more costly to move them. “Generally speaking, in today's economic environment, with the value of coastal property, it tends to be far cheaper,” he said, “to restore a beach by artificial nourishment, and then keep restoring as it needs it.”

Then who should pay for it?

“Our biggest issue on this project is the use of public money,” said Coburn, of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “We're not against nourishment per se. If the property owners in this private subdivision wanted to take their money, pool it together and nourish the beach … go ahead.

“It's pretty much a waste of money,” he said. “Nature will win.”

Wild Dunes paid $7 million of the $10 million; the rest came, after much debate, from the Isle of Palms, Charleston County and the state of South Carolina. The Isle of Palms City Council voted to use public money for two main reasons:

A short section of the renourished beach has public access.

Wild Dunes accounts for half of the island's accommodations tax revenue.

“The beach is the most valuable thing we have,” said Mayor Mike Sottile. “It's the reason people come to visit us.”

A line where old meets new

You can see a literal line in the sand at Isle of Palms where the old beach meets the new. On the old side, the sand is the fine, white-gray of the rest of the island; on the other side, the new sand is brownish-gray with bigger grains and bits of broken shells.

There are no dunes yet in the new part, but the city plans to erect “sand fences” which help build dunes by trapping wind-blown sand.

By late July, just a few weeks after the new sand was in place, parts of the beach already were eroding. There were dropoffs in places of a foot to 18 inches. It's called scarping, and it's common on renourished beaches. One dropoff was so steep at low tide that when you walked out onto the beach from 53rd Avenue, you could see only the top half of people walking down by the water.

Isle of Palms sent out bulldozers twice to rework the sand into a gentler slope.

The city expected the scarping and knew it would need to take remedial action periodically, Tucker said, and her hope is that no more sand will be needed for many years.

But even as the island fine-tunes this project, it already has set aside the first $100,000 toward another, eventual renourishment.