Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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Parts of Chambers County, Texas, have lost 9 ft. of coast to Galveston Bay in the past nine months. Louisiana has shrunk by 300 sq. mi. since 1970; entire parishes may disappear in the next 50 years. At Boca Grande Pass, an inlet on the Gulf Coast of Florida, some 200 million cu. yds. of sand have been carried seaward by the tidal currents. In North Carolina, where erosion this year alone has cut into beachfront property up to 60 ft. in places, the venerable Cape Hatteras lighthouse is in peril of the encroaching sea. Soon it must either be moved or surrounded by a wall. Otherwise, it is likely to suffer the fate of the Morris Island light, near Charleston, S.C. Once on solid land, it now stands a quarter of a mile offshore.

Coastal erosion is only one of the natural processes that have altered the world's shorelines ever since the oceans first formed some 3 billion years ago. Over geologic time, the daily scouring action of waves and the pounding of storms, as well as the rise and fall of ocean levels, have changed coastlines dramatically. "Sandy beaches are dynamic. They are meant to erode," says Richard Delaney, chairman of the Coastal States Organization, a group that advocates better coastal management in 30 states (including those that border the Great Lakes) and five territories. The problem, however, is Americans' passion for living and vacationing at the seashore. That has led to a boom in the development of U.S. coastal areas since World War II. "When you ; put a permanent structure onto a piece of land that is by nature mobile," says Delaney, "you have a very serious problem."

"If we had known 30 years ago what we know now, New Jersey and much of the rest of the country would be in better shape," admits Governor Thomas Kean, a strong believer in shoreline protection. "We wouldn't have built in those areas, and we wouldn't allow people to build in those areas." Even now, however, billions of dollars worth of coastal development -- some would say runaway overdevelopment -- cannot simply be abandoned. Says Chris Soller, management assistant of the National Park Service's Fire Island National Seashore, off Long Island: "It's a tough tightrope to walk. Our whole concept of property rights clashes with the natural process."

Along with property, receding U.S. coastlines threaten the survival of shore-dwelling wildlife. Florida's sea turtles, for example, including loggerheads, green turtles and others, cross hundreds of miles of ocean to lay eggs on the same sections of the same beaches. If the beach has eroded badly, a turtle is forced by instinct to use it anyway, dooming the eggs to be washed away or eaten by seabirds and raccoons. Least terns, Gulf Coast shellfish and beach-spawning fish, like the California grunion, are also in danger.

In the past few decades, as property owners began to demand that coastal areas stay put -- by buying up seaside property and erecting multimillion- dollar beachfront houses, condominiums, hotels and resorts on the shifting sand -- the natural process of erosion began to matter to growing numbers of Americans. Along with the roads, parking lots, airfields and commercial interests that serve them, development projects not only put more people and property in harm's way but also unwittingly accelerated the damage to U.S. coastal areas.

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