It’s August, Washington is on vacation, and your faithful columnist has just returned from four blissful days soaking up sweet rays and digging his toes into the soggy, welcoming sand of Rehoboth Beach, Del. In fact, slathered in sunscreen and buffeted by crisp breezes rippling off the Atlantic, we couldn’t help but notice how much sand there was.

Rehoboth, a beach that earlier in the decade suffered serious erosion after being battered by a series of wicked storms, appears to have made a comeback, once again providing a thick ribbon of sand to accommodate the hordes of sun-starved supplicants who prostrate themselves at this popular vacation destination.

Which set us to wondering about the impact of beach replenishment programs nationwide. Is it sound to interfere with the natural process of beach evolution, whether it be the inexorable, grain-by-grain shift of sand along the coast, or the more dramatic changes that come with the pummeling of a heavy storm?

In a nutshell, no, according to enviros who specialize in coastal management. While an argument can be made for replenishing some beaches at resort towns like Rehoboth and Ocean City, Md., which can’t simply pull up stakes and relocate, the large and expensive projects that protect beaches in front of private homes are a misuse of federal funds and bad environmental and economic policy, according to experts in the field.

“What it comes down to is that beaches don’t need our help,” says Steve Ellis, coastal programs director for Coast Alliance. “When people talk about pumping sand, building seawalls and jetties and groins, it’s never to protect the beach. It’s to protect private property or something else that man has put there.” Better to leave beaches to their natural cycle, slacking in some areas, growing larger in others.

While the building of seawalls and jetties is less and less common, pumping sand is still widespread, even though its impact on coastal habitats is not well-known and its actual long-term stability remains questionable at best, according to experts.

Nonetheless, Congress continues to appropriate money to fund Army Corps of Engineers dredging projects. The House Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee, for instance, recently agreed to provide more than $5 million for a beach renourishment project in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with a billion-dollar beach renourishment program slated to begin in New Jersey later this year.

It’s all questionable economics, according to Ellis and others, who argue that replenished beaches tend to erode faster than natural ones and can pose an even greater threat to oceanfront development. At a recent press conference in D.C., Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, argued that attempting to hold the sea at bay while continuing to build expensive beachfront property is ultimately a futile exercise, a point echoed by New York Times science editor Cornelia Dean, whose new book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches argues that the best way to save a beach is to leave it alone.

And if it’s such a boon to local economies to dig up sand from the ocean and dump it back on the beach, Ellis of the Coast Alliance wonders, why should American taxpayers foot the bill? “If these community and business leaders and realtors feel they get such a great economic bounce, then why should my Uncle Sid in Omaha have to pay for their beaches?”

Anyone out there with different thoughts on this issue? We’d love to hear from you.

Gone Fishin’

Despite rumors of impending action, the Senate slipped town last week (after passing its $792 billion tax cut) without voting on the spending bill for the Interior Department, leaving for another day the debate over a handful of anti-environmental riders (see Muckraker, 08.04.99).

While the delay gives green groups a month to raise the visibility of several anti-environmental items tucked into the bill, it also raises the possibility that Congress will return in September and craft an omnibus spending bill. Such a measure would roll Interior spending into a much larger package, providing even greater cover for obscure riders. Astute readers will recall the gargantuan 1998 omnibus bill, so ponderous and rider-riddled that many members of Congress professed to have no idea what was actually in it.

Roger Featherstone at Defenders of Wildlife reports that there may be even more riders offered to the Interior spending bill. One authored by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) would limit funding for critical habitat designation to $1 million for the 2000 fiscal year. Another by Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) would direct the National Park Service to conduct environmental studies for a proposed railroad that would cut through part of Denali National Park.

California Dreamin’

Not everyone will have a lazy, feet-up-on-the-desk August, least of all folks involved in the special election in California to fill late Rep. George Brown‘s (D) seat. The filing deadline has come and gone and what looked like a solid shot for a GOP pickup now appears more likely to remain in Democratic hands. The question is: which hands?

We thought at the outset that State Sen. Joe Baca might step aside and let George Brown’s widow run unopposed in the Sept. 21 primary. Not happening. Marta Brown now enters the race as an underdog trailing Baca, who is running hard and picking up endorsements left and right.

On the Republican side, the top two prospects, State Sen. Jim Brulte and 1996 nominee Linda Wilde, both opted out of the race, leaving 1998 nominee Elia Pirozzi the odds-on favorite for the GOP nod.

Baca, however, is considered a far stronger candidate than Pirozzi and a better fit for the district. But is he green? The jury is still out on that one. The Sierra Club‘s San Gorgonio chapter has just finished a questionnaire to send to the candidates (there are 10 altogether), and then the group plans to haul each one in for interviews. We will let you know how they do and which one can expect the Sierra Club nod.