One Expensive Rock

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For generations, Rockaway residents have said the peninsula is a dumping ground. If they were referring to sand, then they would be correct. According to a study done by Western Carolina University, Rockaway Beach is the most expensive beach in the United States.

Nearly $270 million (in 2019 dollars) has been spent to stabilize Rockaway Beach through sand replenishment since the year 1930, making it, as far as beach nourishment is concerned, the costliest beach in the United States. Beach nourishment is basically sand and sediment being pumped onto the beach from other sources in order to protect the beachhead from erosion and storm surges. Rockaway Beach has had 36 episodes in which nearly 38 million cubic yards of sand in total has been dumped onto the beach. To put this number in perspective, the second most expensive beach is on the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana, a 50-mile stretch of land in the Gulf, which has been obliterated by hurricanes over the years. All $244 million of its restorations were done in a single episode in 2011, by a private entity. On a side note, the Chandeleur Islands are uninhabited, and are part of a wildlife refuge due to it being a premier destination for southbound bird migrations. So, after Rockaway, the second most expensive beach project was literally for the birds. The second-most expensive beach that humans actually populate is Ocean City, New Jersey, which since 1952, has had 37 separate nourishment episodes (one more than Rockaway) totaling a little over $218 million.

Rockaway not only goes beyond the norms for singular stretches of beach, but even when compared to entire states. If Rockaway Beach had its own star on the American flag, it would be the seventh most expensive state in the union as far as beach replenishment goes. The trophy for most expensive state goes to Florida, where $2.5 billion has been spent to stabilize its many beaches. Rockaway Beach makes up 32% of New York State’s $853 million total, and is $111 million more than New York State’s second most expensive beach, Gilgo Beach, Long Island. For a more local comparison, only one episode has been carried out to stabilize Breezy Point totaling $2.1 million, and only $34 million has been allocated to replenish Coney Island since 1923.

This is all according to an ongoing review by the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines (PSDS) at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. “We started tracking beach nourishment episodes in the mid-1990s, but I wouldn’t really consider it a study. We try our best to keep our beach nourishment database current,” says Andrew Coburn, the program’s associate director. “We use lots and lots of research including site visits, journal reviews, personal conversations and long, painful analyses of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) documents. As it turns out, one of the best sources of beach nourishment data is local newspapers,” he says. Coburn and his colleagues saw the importance in compiling this sort of data early on. “We decided it might be a good idea to keep track of what was happening to our nation’s shorelines since there was no central repository for this type of info, and nobody really seemed to care about who was paying,” he said in an email. They also wanted to try and answer the question, if beach nourishment is the proper solution to erosion and protection problems. “There was scant evidence that beach nourishment was the panacea pro-development interests were claiming. Even today, nobody (including the Army Corps of Engineers) can accurately quantify the tangible benefits afforded by beach nourishment,” said Coburn. 

PSDS' data include beach nourishment episodes funded by every possible entity; federal, paid for by Army Corps of Engineers or FEMA, state funding, local funding, and private funding. Of Rockaway’s 36 separate projects, 31 were paid for through federal funding. PSDS also states the justification of the episodes. PSDS lists nine possible purposes the project would be carried out, namely shore protection. Rockaway’s two most recent episodes according to PSDS happened in 2013 and 2014, post-Sandy, and both of those are listed under “emergency.” PSDS says these projects are for “minimum level of protection to vulnerable coastal development, usually post-storm.” PSDS’ study doesn’t yet include the recent emergency replenishment project that occurred this spring from Beach 92nd to Beach 105th, which came in at nearly $13 million.

Dan Falt, the project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers’ New York district, says Rockaway’s topographical factors could contribute to its many nourishment episodes. “Rockaway erodes quicker than other beaches,” he says, “The peninsula is also not a straight line, it's curved. So parts of the beach erode quicker than others. Also, since the boardwalk is so close to the shoreline, it's very easy to see the historic changes in the beach,” Falt said in an email.

Some say that PSDS' numbers are disingenuous. “When they make these comparisons, they forget that Rockaway Beach is 11 towns,” John Cori, chairman of the Rockaway Beach Civic Association and strong advocate for beach replenishment, said. “How are you going to compare Rockaway to something that is two miles wide?” he said. He calls into question how the comparison can be made between Rockaway’s length and even smaller beaches. Cori also disputes Coburn’s claim that beach nourishment does not provide the benefits it is supposed to. “I totally disagree with that, there’s tons of benefits,” he says, citing benefits to the local economy, recreation, and overall protection.

Whether you think the money is a waste or not, the fact remains, more money has been spent to replenish our beaches in Rockaway than any other in the country.

It’s also expected to continue. When USACE implements its new protection plan for Rockaway starting in 2020, it will include another full replenishment of the beach, using two million cubic yards of sand. USACE has also said previously that even when jetties or groins are installed as part of this plan, sand will continue to need to be replenished about every four years, as it is a sacrificial component of shoreline protection. But those who live here and the millions that visit each summer know that Rockaway Beach is worth protecting.

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