Beaches are America’s favorite playground. To most Americans, just the word “beach” conjures up images of youthful summers, spring break parties, family vacations or relaxing retirement. Beaches are fun, and the numbers bear that out: 200 million Americans visit a U.S. beach every year, more than all the National Parks combined. Beach tourism helps generate $225 billion in revenue annually, a major component of the U.S. travel and tourism sector that is one of the fastest growing parts of the U.S. economy.
Beaches, like parks, come in many shapes and sizes and are managed by different parts of government. National seashores are part of the National Parks System; states, counties, cities and towns all manage beaches, and, in most states, private ownership of beaches extends only to mean high-tide line, so the tidal and swash zones are public property with requirements for public access. While most people don’t think about beach management or engineering as they lie on their blanket soaking up the sun, many beaches — more than 800 miles of beach in the United States — have been engineered or nourished to maintain certain characteristics.
Beaches are far more than sun, surf and recreation. The American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA) advocates for healthy coastlines that offer four interconnected values:
a. Protection from coastal hazards (storms, sea-level rise, etc.)
b. Economic vitality
c. Ecologic health
These beach attributes help coastal communities withstand and bounce back from annual winter nor’easters to episodic El Niños to a once-in-a-lifetime hurricane.
The upfront investment in properly maintaining and managing beaches can save billions of dollars in recovery costs (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the federal shore protection projects saved $1.9 billion in damages during Hurricane Sandy) and allow residents to quickly return to regular life after a storm. The habitat value of beaches helps wildlife populations in ways seawalls or “hardened” shorelines cannot, and the economic value of coastlines — not only from tourism, but also from fishing, marine industry and home value — support diverse jobs and individual wealth.
So, what is meant by “healthy coastline”? Unfortunately, there is no single answer since all coastlines differ geologically and biologically. For much of the United States, a healthy coastline starts with a wide beach where the sand matches the composition of what would naturally be in the area. Grain size and color can impact beach slope, temperature and chemical composition, which in turn impacts what micro fauna live in the sand and, therefore, what wildlife is likely to be found on the beach.
A vegetated dune system is also common and is particularly beneficial in reducing risk from storm surge. Unlike a seawall, a dune can grow over time, as vegetation traps wind-blown sand and can “heal” itself from minor damage during a storm. Behind the beach/dune system, a healthy coastline may include back-bays, wetlands and estuaries, which absorb an influx of water (either from surge or from river flood) and provide a land-water interface that supports human and wildlife needs.
A healthy coastline is more than just a geologically and biologically resilient coast. It has collaborative management, regulation and funding across government sectors. Since beaches provide local, regional and national benefits, their restoration is often funded through a combination of local and federal tax dollars. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has multiple roles in maintaining beaches. It oversees federal permitting and regulations for all beach re-nourishment projects and has been tasked by Congress to rebuild some beaches that have a positive benefit-to-cost ratio for the flood-risk reduction they provide. For some beach projects, the town or county, rather than the Army Corps, leads the project. These towns will often hire coastal consultants and/or engineering firms to do the project planning, engineering and design.
The Importance of Engaged Stakeholders
Finally, a healthy coastline has engaged stakeholders (landowners, residents, businesses, academics, etc.) who understand the challenges of dynamic and populated coasts, actively plan for future conditions and educate coastal users about how to live with the coast — how individual actions impact coastal conditions and how coastal conditions can impact lives. Communities that understand a beach and dune system will reduce risk but cannot provide guaranteed protection have plans for how and when to rebuild after a storm. They also understand how sea-level rise and increasing storm intensity will inevitably change their beach and community, and they will be far more resilient than disengaged communities.
ASBPA is a national organization of beach and coastal “practitioners” — the engineers and scientists who specialize in beach restoration and the managers, planners and policymakers whose focus is maintaining healthy coastlines. We advance the science and policy solutions that will improve America’s beaches and coastlines, advocating for coastal research funding, federal and local funding for beach restoration and maintenance, regional planning and regulatory frameworks that allow for restoration to happen quickly and efficiently. We are more narrowly focused on coastal resources than NRPA, but our vision for using beach parks and “natural infrastructure” to enhance community resilience while supporting public access and recreation values are closely aligned.
ASBPA is also proud to honor a handful of beaches with a “Best Restored Beach” award every year. We believe it’s important to recognize beaches that have been successfully restored with the goals of risk reduction, ecological health, economic viability and recreation, with a community engaged in the restoration process. As our nation moves forward into an era of rising seas and extreme weather, America’s “Best Restored Beaches” are some of the nation’s best examples of community coastal resilience projects.
Derek Brockbank is the Executive Director for the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association.
- Houston, J. 2013. “The economic value of beaches – a 2013 update.” Shore & Beach, 81(1), 3-11.
- ASBPA Beach Nourishment Database
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 2012 “Memorandum for the Record: Damages Prevented by Corps Projects, Hurricane Sandy.”