Guest Column: Asleep at the Helm?

Editor’s note: To stimulate discussion and debate, Coastal Review Online welcomes differing viewpoints on topical coastal issues. See our guidelines for submitting guest columns. The opinions expressed here are not those of Coastal Review Online or the N.C. Coastal Federation.

North Topsail Beach is experiencing a disaster. More than three miles of the beach there have been replenished with sand containing large amounts of rock, from gravel to boulder size. The rock is being removed mechanically from the surface of the beach, but it may soon reappear because the entire sediment column on the beach is the same sand and rock combination that was at the surface.

Orrin Pilkey

Orrin Pilkey

Even if this weren’t the case, the intertidal zone between the high and low tides and beyond the low tide line into the wading zone will be rocky for years to come. A more irresponsible beach replenishment project is hard to imagine. The North Topsail Beach replenishment project is the worst I have seen in my studies of beach replenishment worldwide.

Who is responsible for this travesty?

  • The consultants who apparently convinced state officials that the sand was of good quality. The presence of rock in the vicinity of the north end of North Topsail Beach is well known and well documented from studies by Stan Riggs of East Carolina University and his students. If the consultants had taken appropriate cores to look at the third dimension they would have discovered the rock problem. Why didn’t they stop the project when they realized what was happening?
  • The mayor and his staff who are still claiming that project was successful. Why did they not stop the dredging when the rock began to appear on the beach?
  • The N.C. Division of Coastal Management officials who have not fined or punished the town in some way for destroying a beach. Why didn’t these officials stop the replenishment if the city officials ignored the problem? Why does this agency exist?
  • The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the quality of such beach projects whether or not they fund it. Instead, Corps officials seemed to imply that the city had no choice since the rocky area was where the town’s permit allowed them to dredge. Why didn’t Corps officials stop the project if the consultants, town and state officials didn’t do it?

What will this long-term catastrophe do to the town of North Topsail Beach? Once the word gets out that swimming at North Topsail is dangerous, it is likely that the beachfront rental business in coming years will take a big hit. There is a risk that swimmers and surfers will be injured and the town surely will be sued.

The North Topsail Beach replenishment project is another nail in the coffin of the N.C. coastal management program. Surely beach quality is a major responsibility of the state and surely the state was asleep at the switch.

It is a geologic fact that the continental shelf between Cape Lookout and Cape Fear, called Onslow Bay, is the least sandy continental shelf segment in the Carolinas, a reflection of the geologic history of Onslow Bay and the location of past river mouths as sea level rose and fell during the ice ages. This means that the potential for more beach replenishment disasters along Onslow Bay is real.

On a smaller scale, two shell-hash (oyster shell) replenishment projects were carried out on Emerald Isle in the past. Now, in the intertidal zone and beyond, in several locations on Bogue Banks it is necessary to wear shoes while swimming. Perhaps on North Topsail Beach, steel-toed boots will be required. I would hope my grandchildren will avoid swimming on North Topsail Beach.

About the Author

Orrin H. Pilkey

Orrin H. Pilkey is professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. A longtime advocate of policies that limit oceanfront development, Pilkey founded and is director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, which is now based at Western Carolina University. He lives in Durham.