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Time, nature eroding Texas beaches
Ghost of a Coast

Texas is slowly but surely losing one of its best assets. The state's eroding coastline is its second-most popular tourist attraction, generating about $7 billion in annual revenue, according to the Texas General Land Office (GLO).

"Between Port Aransas and Corpus Christi, we probably have 5 million visitors a year," said Corpus Christi Mayor Loyd Neal. "The largest percentage [of tourists] comes down to stick their toes in the Gulf of Mexico."

The importance of tourism makes saving the beaches an economic priority, said GLO Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

"We cannot take care of all 367 miles of coast," he said. "But in certain places it's cheaper to re-nourish [a beach] than it is to lose the economic activity generated by the presence of a beach."

Slip sliding away
Tides, currents and the occasional tropical storm or hurricane shift sand around on Texas beaches and, in some cases, remove it altogether.

"We have one of the highest erosion rates in the country," said Jim Suydam, press secretary for the GLO. "Some places lose as much as 10 feet [of beach] per year."

Erosion is a problem all along the Gulf Coast, Neal said.

"We'd almost lost the beach in downtown Corpus. It had gone from 100 feet wide down to about 10 feet or so," he said.

Beach erosion is a natural occurrence, he said, but the Gulf of Mexico has taken it up a notch. Wave action from the Atlantic enters the Gulf and winds up along the Texas Coast, he said.

"As much as anything, it's the way the Gulf captures everything," Neal said. "Everything that enters the Gulf goes somewhere."

Further down the coastline, South Padre Island has to contend with erosion problems of its own, said Mayor Bob Pinkerton.

"We're very fortunate in that we don't have the same big problems they have further up the coastline," he said. "Nevertheless, we do have some erosion and you don't want it to get away from you."

South Padre Island officials worked with the Texas Department of Transportation, Pinkerton said, to have sand removed from a roadway outside town and placed back onto public beaches. The city also dredges ship channels every couple of years to put shifted sands back onto the beach.

Since 1997, South Padre has put more than 1.8 million cubic yards of sand back on the beach.

A late start
Texas has lagged behind in its efforts to protect beaches, Suydam said. Over the past 95 years, Texas has received about 1 percent of the federal total funding available to fight beach erosion, while Florida received about 32 percent and New Jersey 27 percent. Illinois received 25 times more funding than Texas, he said.

"It just was never a priority in Texas," he said. "We didn't have the level of development [along the coastline] that we do now."

Preserving beaches is a costly venture, and Texas has only recently appropriated money for beach preservation. The 2001 Texas Legislature passed the Coastal Erosion Planning and Response Act (CEPRA), which provided $30 million for four years. Funding dipped to $7.3 for 2005-06, however, and Suydam said the GLO hopes to convince the 2005 Legislature to increase the amount.

"We'll be trying to seek a reliable funding source for about $25 million from the Legislature," he said.

Patterson added he is confident funding will continue.

Convincing costs
It's not easy to determine how much disappearing beaches costs Texas, Suydam said, because a comprehensive study of the economic impact has never been done.

He added that officials in Rockport are reporting an increase in hotel and motel revenues, and they attribute it to a beach built in Rockport with help from the GLO.

The cost of doing nothing is steep, he said. Thirty years ago, Florida beaches were scoured and eroded, but with federal funds and state interest, they are now full of soft, white sand--and people.

"Texas beaches were bigger [30 years ago]," he said. "Now they're not and there are more people than ever chasing after a spot on smaller beaches."

Convincing legislators from coastal regions to support erosion-curbing efforts is not difficult, Suydam said. The trick is conveying the message to legislators from land-locked regions.

"This is a state issue, not a coastal issue," Patterson said, "like protecting the cotton crop from the boll weevil."

The Texas Open Beaches Act requires public access to all beaches, making erosion a more pressing public issue.

Building beaches
Officials at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi (A&M-CC) are trying to solve the beach erosion problem at the public beach across from their campus on Ward Island. The beach was built in 2001.

"We were working on a grant from the GLO and only had about six months to do it and got it done," said Deidre Williams, a research associate with the Conrad Blucher Institute, a research center at A&M-CC. "There was once a beach along the island, and what we did was restore that beach."

The beach is 1,200 feet wide, 200 feet deep from shoreline to road and extends 250 feet offshore. It also features breakwater structures, patterned after natural reefs and headlands that dampen the wave energy on the beach. So far, so good, Williams said.

"It's been quite effective," she said. "Our beach is hanging in there. It's a public beach, so it gets use from families and the public and students."

The first phase of the project, the only one completed, was to build the beach. Phase two will include additions for public access, such as parking spaces and ramps for disabled access.

"A lot of coastal communities are losing their beaches," Williams said. "It's a natural process; there's no one to be blamed. But each community has to make its own decision as to whether or not to save them."

Clint Shields

Ivan the terrible

Powerful storms and hurricanes can move tons of sand off Texas beaches in a matter of hours, but researchers can't predict when and where the storms will come. That, and the absence of a large storm striking Texas in recent years, leaves researchers without many opportunities to study storm erosion.

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan's circuitous route through Alabama, the Atlantic Ocean and then back into the Gulf of Mexico, however, provided Deidre Williams, a research associate with the Conrad Blucher Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi with a first-hand look at nature's power.

"There is no beach right now," Williams said on Sept. 22, with Ivan still more than a day's journey from the Gulf Coast. "Ivan is causing some water level problems right now and the water is up over the beach."

Ivan's advanced storm surge pushed water levels over the beach and into coastal communities along the Texas shore. The aftermath should provide Williams and other researchers at A&M Corpus Christi with valuable data on storm erosion.