Beach nourishment, also known as restoration or replenishment, is a practice that involves dumping a lot of sand on a heavily eroded beach to build it back up again. The actual mechanics of the process are a little bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes, all we really need to know are the basics. This is a bit different from creating an artificial beach, building a beach where one did not exist before. The purpose of beach nourishment is to restore an existing beach.
The shoreline is in a constant state of flux. Beaches naturally erode away, reform, change shape, lose and gain characteristics. Some of the changes to the shoreline can also be the result of human activities; erosion of beaches can be linked with development, seawalls, and other things. Beaches are restored either to satisfy members of a community who want the beach that was there when they moved in, or because there is a legitimate environmental concern about a vanishing beach and a desire to address it.
In order to restore a beach, you need a source of sand. This is actually a bit more complicated than it sounds. Sand can be taken from inland dunes, but there’s a chance it will not match the sand on the existing beach. This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. The wrong sand can quickly erode away or it may be filled with ‘fines,’ very small particulates that will quickly leach into the water and make it turbid, about which more in a moment. Using the wrong sand can also interfere with nesting and breeding animals, including endangered species that make the shoreline home. Sometimes, the wrong sand just re-erodes, ending up in the ocean and leaving the beach just the way it was.
Dredging the ocean floor for sand is also not a terrific solution, however. While matching sand can sometimes be found, dredgers often end up pulling sand from deep water, and this sand is not a good fit with the beach. The dredging also disrupts benthic (bottom dwelling) communities. A chain reaction can start as these organisms are disturbed and the balance of the food chain and the local ecology starts to go awry.
Assuming that one does find good sand, beach nourishment inevitably buries organisms living on or near the beach under restoration. It can completely disrupt communities in shallow water, leading to breaks in the food chain. As plants and small creatures are buried under sand, organisms that count on them to survive begin to starve. If they can’t relocate, they are stuck in a food desert. Meanwhile, organisms that have familiarised themselves with the beach find unexpected changes that may disrupt breeding, feeding, and nesting habits. While restoring a beach may sometimes be done for the benefit of these organisms, they don’t always get the memo.
One of the most serious problems that has arisen with beach nourishment and conservation concerns sea turtles. Sea turtles may be reluctant to nest in the wrong sand or on a restored beach. Sometimes they create false nests; people initially believe that the turtle populations have not been destabilised, but their nests come to nothing. In areas where ongoing programmes are trying to support and restore sea turtle populations, this is understandably a really frustrating outcome.
Meanwhile, the water turbidity problem. Even if the sand isn’t full of fines, some of it is still going to end up in the water. This darkens the water column. Light blocking has a profound impact on marine organisms that count either on light for photosynthesis, or light to support photosynthesising organisms that they count on for food. Disruptions of the food chain, again, are a big problem. Likewise, sediments can also be loaded with toxins that, when stirred up by the dredging and dumping, are released into the water, just in time to disrupt sea life.
As if the environmental issues associated with beach nourishment weren’t enough, there are also some snarled class and social issues. Certain kinds of beaches tend to be chosen more often for restoration, and these beaches tend to be in wealthier areas. In some regions, sand has actually been taken from beaches in impoverished areas to restock beaches in wealthier areas. Many communities do not appreciate being used as free sources of sand when their residents were happily enjoying the beach before all their sand was taken away.
In some cases, public beaches have been appropriated, turned private for the government, and used basically as sand farms. Not only are community beaches stripped of their sand, but people aren’t allowed to enter them because they are government property. Traveling to an intact or restored beach may not be an option for people in these communities; public transit is often less than ideal, people may lack cars and other transit options, or simply not have the time to go to a beach in another community. Likewise, some folks may not relish the thought of being given The Stare for frequenting a beach in a community that is not theirs, for being viewed as outsiders.
Everyone deserves to have access to a beach, is my way of thinking. It may not be a critical need up there with housing and food, but beaches make people happy. They improve quality of life. There’s a common attitude that people living in poverty should live in deprivation, that they should be suffering at all times or they are not poor enough, that they are not allowed to do fun things like going to the beach. I don’t happen to subscribe to this point of view. In fact, I push back pretty strongly against it, because it is bullshit. Everyone deserves to have fun. Everyone deserves happiness. Taking someone’s sand away for being too poor is a pretty vile thing to do.
The beach nourishment issue is a complex one. There are ongoing studies to explore ways that it can be made more environmentally friendly, but many of these studies do not consider class issues. In cases where beach nourishment really is an environmental necessity and it’s well planned and executed, many of the environmental concerns may be addressed, making it not only sustainable but beneficial as well.
But even the most environmentally sound project still needs sand, and it’s worth asking where that sand is going to come from if benthic sediments and inland deposits aren’t suitable.