Like lime rickeys, saltwater taffy, and snack-pilfering seagulls, pumping sand to replenish eroding beaches has been a long tradition at the Jersey Shore.

This year, however, the Army Corps of Engineers' beach-fill program, long criticized by environmentalists, might be in the fight of its life.

Citing a long-standing federal policy, the White House's Office of Management and Budget has balked at approving money for the nationwide beach-fill projects on the corps' stimulus-package list.

Members of Congress, including the New Jersey delegation, have been pressing OMB to approve the money.

New Jersey is the national leader in federally subsidized beach projects, with about $450 million spent since 1985. Beach-fill projects are in the works all along the New Jersey and Delaware coasts.

It is not yet certain which projects would be affected if the federal government pulled out, and any changes would not take effect until the new fiscal year started in September. But coastal lobbyists fear for the future of the program if financially strapped state and local governments have to pay all the bills. Typically, the federal government pays 65 percent of the costs.

Last month, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association advised members that OMB "has pulled funding for every beach renourishment project."

That prompted 18 members of Congress, including Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., both New Jersey Democrats, to send a letter to President Obama urging the administration to sign off on the projects, arguing they were important to tourism and "critical" for flood protection.

Ordinarily, beach projects are designed to continue for 50 years. But as a matter of official policy, the federal government does not contribute to periodic beach "renourishments" - fills that bulk up beaches after projects get started. Even so, Congress has historically earmarked appropriations to keep the pumps running.

"Congress has done an incredible job to keep the program going," Harry Simmons, mayor of a North Carolina beach town and the lobby association's president, said last week.

This year, because of OMB's role in reviewing and approving stimulus money, Congress might be handcuffed, said Howard Marlowe, the nation's most prominent coastal lobbyist.

No final decisions have been made on the corps list, said OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer, who grew up in Cherry Hill and is well familiar with the Jersey Shore.

"Beaches are an important resource for many communities up and down the coast, and we are examining this issue very closely," he said.

Simmons said he sensed a change in OMB's posture and believed the lobbying was having some impact.

Environmentalists have criticized beach fill as a taxpayer subsidy that induces risky development, benefits wealthy property owners, and, in the long run, is quixotic, given the rising sea level.

Dery Bennett, a longtime director of the American Littoral Society in Sandy Hook, N.J., argues that taxpayers in Des Moines should not be paying for the sands of Avalon.

"The funding should be more local if the towns and people in the towns want it," he said. "They could come up with a bigger share of the expense."

Said Jonathan Oldham, mayor of Harvey Cedars, N.J.: "People who live away from the coast think these beach replenishment projects are nothing more than a bunch of rich people looking for a government handout to help them protect their valuable property. But in a state like New Jersey, where so much of the economy is dependent on tourism, beach replenishment is not a luxury but a necessity."

New Jersey is the venue for the biggest project in corps history, from Sea Bright to Manasquan in North Jersey. It began in 1995 and so far has cost $135 million in federal money, said Anthony Ciorra, the corps project manager.

The corps has allocated almost $300 million to South Jersey and Delaware since 1986, spokeswoman Susan Anderson said. Projects are under way at Brigantine, Atlantic City and Ventnor, Avalon and Stone Harbor, Ocean City, Cape May and Cape May Point in New Jersey. In Delaware, the projects are on Fenwick Island, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and South Bethany Beach, and Roosevelt Inlet to Lewes Beach.

The renourishment intervals vary from two to six years, she said, depending on the state of the beaches and available money. The corps is planning a refill at Ocean City with money from the last fiscal year, and recently completed one at Cape May, she said.

A new project is scheduled this summer for Long Beach Island, and Long Beach Township Mayor Joseph H. Mancini said he wasn't losing much sleep over the latest hubbub.

"I don't get myself too excited when you hear about funding cuts," he said. "We have a lot of important people who pay a lot of taxes on their summer homes here, and I don't think they are going to be willing to allow the government to put their homes at risk."

Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.