Conservative lawmakers, protecting their beaches, also adapt to climate change

Many of the beaches along Rep. Allen West's district in southeast Florida are disappearing, and the conservative freshman who joined Congress in the anti-spending wave of 2010 wants to help fix them.

West is joining Palm Beach County officials to support projects that could siphon tons of sand from offshore in the ocean onto popular beaches that are being devoured by roiling waves and occasional hurricanes. He also speaks positively of building hardened walls called groins that jut toward the horizon to prevent sand from sifting along the shoreline.

"If we don't have nice beaches, no one comes," West said in a brief interview this week.

For West and other Republican lawmakers, these beach projects are often seen as tools to protect local economies dependent on sunny recreation and tourism. But many environmental experts see them as important policies to prepare for climate change, creating an overlap of economic and climate policies that some lawmakers are not eager to acknowledge.

"I don't know," West said when asked if rising sea levels were contributing to beach erosion. "I'd have to get out there and do the little stick and measure that. But I think you've seen over a period of time -- I don't know if it's about the tides or whatever -- but [erosion] is a concern for the constituents there."


Going back 20 years or more, three general responses to rising ocean waters have shaped the discussion around coastal climate adaptation: retreat from the creeping shoreline, armor it, or nourish the beach.

The last is the least expensive, though tens of millions of dollars are poured into the effort annually. That cost is expected to rise as the demand for sand goes up and its availability goes down.

"Beach renourishment and other ways that we can protect our shorelines ... they're going to be very important adaption options for our community," said Nancy Gassman, the natural resources administrator for Florida's Broward County, which sits near the nation's southernmost latitude.

Man-made damage -- but not from carbon

Bulking up beaches can prevent salty sea water from invading coastal property, eroding beaches and backing up tunnels that shoot floodwater out of cities. The demand for nourishment projects is expected to climb in tandem with ocean water, which rose about 7 inches globally on average in the 20th century. The increase followed a period of 2,000 years with little change in sea levels, according to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

Seawater, which is expanding as it warms with rising atmospheric temperatures, is rising more aggressively along the East Coast of the United States, because the shoreline is sinking. From New York to North Carolina, sea levels rose about one foot on average in the last century. Many experts believe that the rate is accelerating, though they're not sure if it's a long-term trend, which depends in part on how quickly Greenland and Antarctica melt.

Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican and a tea party standard bearer, took a December tour of Folly Beach, which was eroded to a nub during Hurricane Irene last year. Scott is supporting local officials in their effort to persuade the Army Corps or the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help renourish the beach at a cost that local officials say will reach upwards of $18 million.

Scott said in a brief interview this week that the cost to taxpayers is justified because past federal projects along the shore are contributing to the beach's erosion. Jetties and other infrastructure can disrupt the movement of sediment or alter wave action, creating unintended consequences on shorelines.

When asked about climate adaptation, Scott indicated that he believes enhanced erosion at the beach is man-made -- from coastal infrastructure, not climate change.

"There's no question that according to the information I received the decision by the federal government to put jetties [nearby] ... changed the flow of the water and has done more erosion that would have been done by the normal process," he said.

'We don't care what you call it'

The corps has added sand to the beach previously, and is scheduled to again in 2013 as part of a continuing renourishment project. Sand projects last between five and 10 years before another infusion is needed, raising questions among some lawmakers about how wise it is to spend money on temporary protections.

"I don't think the federal government can continue to move sand around when nature moves it the other way," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "But I think in some cases, the corps has a legitimate reason," like when keeping waters navigable.

Asked if he agreed with EPA and other agencies that beach nourishment is a way to adapt to climate change, he grimaced and said, "I'd have to look at the science on that."

In Florida, where officials say 485 miles of beach are eroding, the impact of rising seas could be widespread. Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable.

In the four counties that stretch from Palm Beach to Miami and then around the tip of Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, ocean waters are projected to rise by between three and seven inches over the next 18 years. Between now and 2060, they're expected to rise by between nine inches and two feet, according to the Southeast Florida Climate Change Compact, a coalition of those four counties.

The group released a densely researched plan to address climate change last year. One of its efforts on adaptation includes persuading Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to recognize "Adaptation Action Areas" -- places the group says should receive priority funding because they're particularly at risk from sea level rise.

The plan explicitly notes that the funding should come from the Army Corps' Energy and Water Development account, from which beach renourishment funding is derived. The group recently lobbied federal officials for the at-risk designation with a letter signed by some members of the Florida congressional delegation.

West was not among them, said Patti Webster, the environmental projects coordinator of Broward County. But she gives the lawmaker credit for supporting nourishment projects in neighboring Palm Beach County, even if he believes the damages are derived from something other than climate change.

"We don't care what you call it. We just need things to happen," Webster said. "Florida can't wait for all the political stars to align. Florida can't afford it."

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