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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Millions of Americans love to head to the beach for weekends or for vacations. And many of the beaches we like exist because of a U.S. government program.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As coastlines shift and erosion washes sand away, the Army Corps of Engineers builds beaches back up. It's called beach nourishment. They've been doing this for more than 50 years. The debate over whether that's an effective use of taxpayer money is an old one.

MONTAGNE: But it has new urgency since Hurricane Sandy. Federal aid for Sandy relief could provide billions more for beach nourishment. NPR's Jennifer Ludden went to get a closer look at what this means.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: On a blustery day at Virginia Beach, a bulldozer smoothes out pyramids of sand.

(SOUNDBITE OF BULLDOZER ENGINE)

LUDDEN: Jennifer Armstrong manages this project for the Army Corps of Engineers. Another pile of sand is about to appear. She points offshore to a long, black vessel.

JENNIFER ARMSTRONG: That's the hopper dredge. And it dredges up, and then it stores it all underneath.

LUDDEN: The dredge has sucked up sand like a giant vacuum cleaner from five to 10 miles offshore.

ARMSTRONG: And it pumps the sand onto the shore.

LUDDEN: Through a large, metal pipe to a boxy, yellow filter where the mud-grain mix sprays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAND SPRAYING)

LUDDEN: By late spring, Virginia Beach will be hundreds of feet wider. The cost to federal taxpayers: $9 million. But - and this is where beach nourishment gets controversial - this is the 49th - yes, 49th - time this strip has been built up since 1951, most of that with federal money. And Armstrong says with its current long-term project, the Army Corps will do it again and again and again, as needed.

ARMSTRONG: The thing that I try to stress to people is we're only about 11 years into this project, and already, we've prevented $443 million in damages. It has already paid for itself, and all planned re-nourishment cycles over the next four to three years.

LUDDEN: How's that? It's the estimated storm damage not done to the strip of high-rise chain hotels that line this shore, the heart of Virginia Beach's tourism economy.

PHIL ROEHRS: These are the Ash Wednesday Storm photos.

LUDDEN: Over its city offices, Phil Roehrs shows me framed photos of this same hotel strip after a devastating storm in 1962. He's the city's water resources engineer, and he never wants to see this again.

ROEHRS: Large segments of the seawall completely blown out and exposing the hotels to direct wave attack.

LUDDEN: That storm kicked off the Army Corps' replenishment program in earnest all along the East Coast. Roehrs says think of it like this: Beaches are just like roads or bridges - public infrastructure that needs routine repair. And that maintenance, he says, has helped prevent untold damage. Just look at New Jersey after Sandy.

ROEHRS: Township A had a protection plan in place. And Township B, right next door, didn't, and Township B suffered tragically. It's better to pay for a little protection than a whole lot of clean-up.

ELI LEHRER: This is a particularly silly form of disaster relief.

LUDDEN: Eli Lehrer is with the libertarian R Street Institute and co-founder of SmarterSafer, a Washington coalition of environmental groups and budget watchdogs.

LEHRER: Beach re-nourishment creates a false sense of security that tends to induce development in the very areas where it's most likely to be destroyed by nature's worst.

LUDDEN: In other words, create a wide swath of sand and people will build there, even if it would otherwise be deemed folly. Lehrer says replenishing remote barrier islands is the most egregious waste of taxpayer money. For a tourism-dependent place like Virginia Beach, sure, he concedes, it makes economic sense for that town.

LEHRER: If it's going to be paid for with public dollars at all, those public dollars ought to be collected very much at the local level.

LUDDEN: Right now, the federal government pays 65 percent of beach nourishment projects, local communities the rest. President Clinton and the second President Bush tried and failed to reduce the federal share. President Obama has tightened regulations for which projects qualify. But Congress approves the funding, and it's a pretty popular program. Howard Marlowe lobbies for more than a dozen beach communities.

HOWARD MARLOWE: We have clients in North Carolina where - these are cottages. They're for rent. We have so many congressional staff going there, it always amazes me.

LUDDEN: They go to vacation.

MARLOWE: Yes.

LUDDEN: In fact, Marlowe has a ready answer to the obvious question: Why should the taxpayers in Iowa or Nebraska be subsidizing this?

MARLOWE: Because the taxpayer in Iowa and Nebraska are actually going to those beaches.

LUDDEN: Communities must offer some public access to get federal funding for beach replenishment, though the program has been slammed as welfare for the rich, since it pumps up the value of plenty of private, beachfront homes. Is that fair? Lobbyist Marlowe says, yes, it is.

MARLOWE: We budget $2 billion dollars a year in this country to fight wildfires, and that's not disaster. That is every year. And we don't fight wildfires for any reason other than to protect the homes that are anywhere nearby.

LUDDEN: It's true: beach nourishment is chump change compared to that. But since Superstorm Sandy, another critique has gained attention, one that makes this task of rebuilding constantly eroding beaches seem even more Sisyphean and costly.

ORRIN PILKEY: Everything we do should be done with the assumption that the sea level's rising, and another Sandy will come by in some number of years.

LUDDEN: Orrin Pilkey is professor emeritus at Duke University. He's criticized federal beach nourishment for decades. And now he says studies show a warming planet is causing sea levels to rise even faster, especially in the mid-Atlantic. There's no avoiding it, he says. We're going to have to retreat.

PILKEY: If I was king of New Jersey, for example, buildings that were within two blocks of the beach, I wouldn't replace them if they'd been destroyed. And I would try to move other buildings back from the beach.

LUDDEN: Pilkey senses more support for this since Sandy. But for public officials like Phil Roehrs in Virginia Beach, it's easier said than done.

ROEHRS: The population wants to live at the coast. It's been that way since recorded history.

LUDDEN: Roehrs says the Army Corps of Engineers does consider sea level rise when it builds up beaches, and that's good. But he cautions against planning too far ahead.

ROEHRS: If you forecast out 150 years and believe that the sea's going to rise six feet, you can easily strangle any attempt to do anything about it, because it's just too large.

LUDDEN: More sensible, he says, take it 20 years at a time, then gauge where you are. Certainly at Virginia Beach's tourist strip, no one seems to be thinking of retreat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

LUDDEN: Just like the beach, the line of hotels here is in a state of ongoing renovation. Roehrs says about a third are new or refurbished. As bulldozers smooth out sand, there's confidence that these high-rises will be safe and profitable for a good while to come. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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