Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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The Federal Government's record on beach protection is spotty. In 1982 Congress removed about 600 miles of coastline and 187 islands -- about 1% of U.S. coastal areas -- from eligibility for federal flood insurance on new construction. The Senate is considering a bill, passed by the House in June, that would help people relocate their houses away from eroding beaches. But the Reagan Administration is cool toward a proposal now before Congress, introduced in March by Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, that would identify all threatened coastal wetlands and provide as much as $40 million over two years for their protection.

One problem with getting the Federal Government involved in coastal management is that there is no single responsible Government agency. The Army Corps of Engineers comes closest, but it is often hamstrung by its dual mission: it is charged with both protecting vulnerable wetlands and keeping waterways navigable. In Louisiana, complains Environmental Lawyer Houck, when there is a conflict, the waterways win every time. This does not have to be the case, contends Bill Wooley, planning chief for the corps's Galveston office. While he concedes the task is formidable, he insists that "we can manage both. It's a matter of how much we want to spend."

Environmentalists criticize the Army Corps for relying on anti-erosion schemes -- seawalls, jetties and groin fields -- that often cause more problems than they solve. "The Army Corps of Engineers has had a long, checkered history," says Gary Griggs, a professor of coastal geology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Still, he admits, the Army Engineers "have done better recently." Says Charles Rooney, the corps's chief of civil projects in New York: "The state of the art in coastal engineering has improved. We understand more than we used to. We build smaller to allow the bypassing of sand. We try to be less disruptive. Done correctly, groin construction and jetty construction can stabilize beaches without causing problems."

The simplest and most effective response to coastal erosion would be to prevent people from living at the edge of the sea. The nonprofit, Washington- based Nature Conservancy encourages just that by buying threatened coastal areas and refusing to develop them. The group has made 32 separate purchases in eight states, sheltering more than 250,000 acres, including 13 barrier islands off the coast of Virginia that it bought for $10 million. Says Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University geologist and one of the country's top experts on beach erosion: "Retreat is the ultimate solution. Property owners must pack up and move."

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