Southend beaches getting smaller

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Meanwhile, Ocean City’s north end readies for another beach fill project

Longtime southend residents and neighbors Joe Heath and Margaret Foley sitting in their beach chairs up against the dune fencing on the 57th Street beach at high tide. Longtime southend residents and neighbors Joe Heath and Margaret Foley sitting in their beach chairs up against the dune fencing on the 57th Street beach at high tide.

OCEAN CITY — On a sunny Saturday afternoon in the third week of August, Joe Heath and Margaret Foley sat on the beach just as they have for the last 30 years. Except on this day, at peak high tide, the longtime neighbors were sitting in their chairs with their backs up against the dune fencing, retreating as far as possible from the incoming water.

Heath and Foley, who have resided next door to one another in the 5600 block of Central Avenue since 1982, began making their daily summer trips to the beach a decade before beach replenishment projects became the norm in Ocean City. And while they do not feel the same level of urgency as do others on their beachfront block, they are concerned that the face of their beach is rapidly changing.

“A few years ago, 12 catamarans docked here,” Heath said, indicating where six crafts had occupied a stretch of sand to the north and six others to the south of the path that divides the dunes and enters the beach at 57th Street.  “Now there’s just one and it’s in danger of floating away.”

High tide on the city’s southernmost beaches lately has reached 6 to 8 feet beyond the fencing, touching the foot of the dunes, and leaving behind straw-like beach grass. The ocean’s approach to the dunes this summer has some residents – especially Jeffrey Monihan, a resident of the 5600 block of Central Avenue since 1975, who has gathered 60 signatures on a petition asking the city to bring the south end more sand – fearing a full-out assault come winter and its nor’easters.

While the north end of Ocean City is being readied for its seventh beach fill project overall – and its sixth by the Army Corps of Engineers since initial construction was completed in 1992 – the south end again will not receive any federally funded sand. The two beach replenishment projects that have been done in the south end – from 36th to 59th streets in August 1995 and from 48th to 59th streets in January 2001 – were sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

In total, Ocean City’s north end has received 13.809 million cubic yards of sand, at a cost of $74 million, primarily funded by the federal government. The south end has never received federally funded sand. (There are 50 cubic yards of sand per foot of shoreline.)

The earliest the beach south of 34th Street could receive sand in a federally funded beach fill project would be as early as late 2013 or as late as 2015, said Dwight Pakan, an engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers in Philadelphia.

“It’s difficult to predict,” said Pakan, who has worked on two previous beach replenishment projects in Ocean City. “It’s all at the mercy of Congressional funding. If all goes well, it could happen within a year, but probably the earliest we can do it is maybe late next year or 2014.”

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the NJDEP, said the state agency is reviewing a proposal from the Army Corps and is “committed to helping through the proposal before us.” Although that project, which could happen next year or the one after that, has not yet received federal funding, Hajna said, “Historically, we have matched state funds to federal funds on all beach projects.”

Pakan said another opportunity exists for the south end to receive sand in the fall of 2015 pending federal approval. If that were to happen, it would be the first time ever the city’s south end was the recipient of a federally funded beach fill project.

However, Pakan said the south end stands better a chance of receiving what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a “betterment,” commonly referred to as an “add on,” this fall. Such an undertaking involves “adding on,” or piggy-backing, another stretch of beach onto an approved project, which saves money by reducing the costliest aspect of any such project, the mobilization and demobilization of equipment. The federal government would not pay for the betterment, but would facilitate it by extending the contracts that are to be awarded this month.

But city business administrator Mike Dattilo said that scenario is unlikely.

“It’s doubtful because of the practicality of it,” he said. “To get the material the length of the island would be cost prohibitive.”

The first step in the betterment process requires local administrators to contact the state DEP, and that has not happened.

“The city has not approached us about a betterment project,” Hajna said.

In a state-local partnership, Ocean City would pay one-quarter the cost of the project.

Stewart Farrell, director of the Coastal Research Center at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey for 25 years, put the cost of a “betterment” project at $3 million to $4 million with Ocean City’s share roughly $1 million. In his opinion, the south end’s best chance at getting more sand exists farther south, at Corson’s Inlet State Park, where the sand accumulation is so great, he said it is possible at low tide to walk out a quarter mile.

Why the disparity?

The way Ocean City is situated, facing southeast, and the way winter storms arrive, at a 45-degree angle from the northeast, creates a challenge in keeping sand at the northern end of the island, Farrell said. As a result, prevailing tides and storms transport sand away from the north more quickly than from the south.

But with the recent loss of sand in the far south end, residents there, and their councilman, 4th Ward representative Pete Guinosso, have begun questioning why the north end of Ocean City gets such a disproportionate amount of attention when it comes to federally funded beach replenishment projects.

“I’ve mentioned the idea of getting sand down here,” said Guinosso, adding that he’s asked Dattilo to contact U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo for intervention in Congress.

Guinosso, Dattilo and Central Avenue homeowners all agree the need for sand is most desperate in the beach blocks from the mid- to high-50s. Last week, the city began hauling sand from its healthiest beaches in the 20s and 30s to its neediest beaches, an approach one southend resident said is akin “to putting a Band-Aid on an amputated limb.”

Since Farrell began monitoring New Jersey’s coastline in 1986 and the federal government began putting sand back onto Ocean City’s coastline, the city’s southend beaches have received no federal money and two non-federal projects totaling 663,000 cubic yards of sand at a cost of $3 million. Together, those two southend projects compare closely to just one northend project: the first part of the first cycle of periodic nourishment in December 1994 when 606,000 cubic yards of sand were pumped from First to 11th streets at a cost of $3.2 million.

“They got skunked at the south end of Ocean City,” Farrell said.

“It’s not like we decided we don’t care,” Pakan said of the city’s south end. “It’s very prescriptive what we can do. The money must be spent where it’s authorized to be spent. It’s all at the behest of Congress, more or less. We’re doing their bidding.”

But Jason Galanes, press secretary to LoBiondo, disagreed, saying the process works in the reverse and that the Army Corps is the ultimate authority on what beaches get sand.

“Congress puts in for beach replenishment and the money will go to the Army Corps in Philadelphia,” Galanes said. “Then the Army Corps decides what money goes where. The north part has received more because the Army Corps makes the decision where they stop.”

Where does the sand go?

Many people, including officials in Ocean City who have made public statements to such effect, are under the impression that the south end benefits directly from northend replenishment projects; the logic being that the northend sand eventually travels south and deposits itself in the city’s south end.

That is not exactly how it works, said Farrell, who has aerial photographs at the Coastal Research Center that show a huge bulge of sand has collected at the city’s midpoint.

“Sand doesn’t flow south at a uniform rate,” said Farrell. “In Ocean City, it stops between 15th and 30th streets for a very long residence time. It just parks itself there.”

He called 20th Street “the poster child of beaches,” saying his most recent measurements in that block, taken in fall 2011, show a 465-foot-wide stretch of sand. In 1986, before beach replenishment projects began, Farrell said the beach at 20th Street was so compromised it measured negative 60 feet.

Since the advent of beach replenishments, beaches in the city’s midsection have grown by hundreds of feet while beaches in the south end have barely maintained their profile.

“The shoreline is approximately where it was in 1986,” said Farrell of the beach at 56th Street, where he credited any sand accretion to the building of the dunes. “There are about five dump trucks more of sand now than there were in 1986.”

What’s happening to the beaches?

“Normally, there’s a nice, gradual slope. This year, we’ve got this,” Heath said in August, motioning toward the ocean where bathers not far from shore were waist-deep in water. Closer to the shoreline, a sandbar had formed, creating tidal pools in which Foley’s young granddaughter frolicked.

A survey done by the Coastal Research Center in August shows the shoreline has gotten steeper in that area, indicating an “erosional pocket” and a need for replenishment, Farrell said.

“The beach,” he added, “is starved for sand.”

A stationary front combined with ripples of low pressure, in combination with a steady southeast wind that blew for most of a week, “piled water along the shoreline” during the end of August, said NBC-TV 40 meteorologist Rick DeLuca.

“A persistent wind would contribute to higher than normal high tides, but not cause the layout of the beach to change,” DeLuca said.

Why replenish beaches?

The primary function of beach replenishment projects, Pakan said, is storm damage reduction. Recreation is secondary. Additionally, the project must be justified, meaning the benefits must outweigh the costs over a 50-year cycle.

To Farrell, the math is very simple. According to his records, in New Jersey, almost $600 million in local, state and federal funds has been spent on beach replenishment projects over the last 25 years. That money that has helped protect the state’s $38 billion a year tourist industry.

“Beach replenishment has clearly paid off,” he said.

Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County, said the county, with $5.1 billion in tourist spending, ranks second in the state, and that Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth counties combine to earn two-thirds of the state’s tourism dollars. Forty-eight percent of Cape May County’s economy is based on tourism, Wieland said, with surveys showing 89 percent of visitors come for the beaches.

“The state recognizes the value of the beaches to the economy,” she said.

One of the key concerns of the Federal Management Emergency Agency is repetitive loss properties, said Frank Donato, Ocean City’s emergency management coordinator and CFO. Its aim is to acquire, elevate or relocate such properties.

With the ocean rushing ever closer, southend residents are starting to worry their beachfront homes will need FEMA assistance if the dunes, their best defense against storms, don’t hold.

Farrell states the need for sand most simply: “Without beach replenishment, Ocean City in 150 years is just a sandbar with very expensive debris on it.”

south end beach erosion in Ocean City, beach replenishment projects in the north end

south end beach erosion in Ocean City, beach replenishment projects in the north end


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