Newbury police Sgt. Patty Fisher, right, photographs damaged homes near Plum Island Center, Newbury, in April 2013 after series of damaging northeasters.

Credit: Bryan Eaton / Newburyport Daily News

Coastal Erosion Sparks 'Sand Wars' In New England

December 16, 2013

This story was produced with The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit investigative reporting newsroom based at WGBH News and Boston University. Read the full NECIR investigation here

It's the time of year our neighbors who live near the ocean fear the most. It's the winter when storms pound our coast and steal tons of sand from our beaches. Beyond the long standing concerns of beach erosion, comes the cost communities are paying to replenish its beaches and looking for ways to better protect waterfront homes.

Ray Champagne swings his truck into a parking space behind a home on Salisbury Beach, about an hour north of Boston. He points out the window to a nearby hill of sand topped with long grass.

Champagne is president of the Salisbury Beach Betterment Association. He describes the dune in front of him:

"This is part of the dune. And it’s valuable because look at the strength of this grass. And look how it has encompassed this home right here where it’s protecting this home and as we go up this right of way, you’ll see -- this is like having a seawall of some sort. It’s a product that Mother Nature makes. And we like it." 

Of course, people in coastal communities like anything that keeps their pristine beaches from eroding. But at what cost?

As part of our investigation with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, we found it costs millions, if you can even find sand to replenish beaches. A survey shows in the last 10 years, at least $40 million in federal, state and local funds were spent to place sand on Massachusetts public beaches. And coastal experts say that figure will soon swell.

If this year is any indication, Massachusetts will need a lot more money and a lot more sand. Remember the images from February's blizzard or March's Nor'easter? Seven homes toppled or were demolished.

In the year since, many homeowners in Salisbury spent thousands of dollars each to truck in sand from gravel pits.

“As we walk here, this is the sand that was trucked in. This material is not beach sand. It's a product that is supposed to be consistent with beach sand. It's a little more on the gravel side," Champagne told me as he walked.

Whatever Champagne calls it, this new sand is referred to as sacrificial dunes. These dunes form roughly two-story hills that stand guard against powerful waves that could roll up the flat beach. Champagne and other homeowners say they’ve done their part. They've put in their own money, time and sweat, and now they want the state to use $300,000 in taxpayer money for sand on a public beach to protect private homes from storms.

The bigger problem is that available beach sand is becoming hard to find. New England fishermen oppose mining offshore sand because they worry it will harm sea life. Environmentalists fear bulldozing sand from beaches can increase erosion and harm bird nesting grounds. Trucking sand from inland sources can be four times as expensive, and often it doesn’t look or feel the same as beach sand.

"This is a problem that we need to be able to plan for and proactively address."

Republican State Senator Bruce Tarr sponsored a bill to create a special commission on coastal erosion.

One possible solution: dredge shallow waterways and use that sand to restock beaches.

That method is already working in one Massachusetts community.

In Barnstable, they're dredging East Bay. The entrance has gradually been filling up with sand in the seven years since it was last dredged, making it harder for commercial and pleasure boats to get in and out.

A pump is sucking up a dark brown mixture of water, sand and mud from the floor of the bay into a pipeline. Barnstable town architect John Juros watches as the mixture spits out of the pipeline a mile and a half away, on Long Beach.

"It's sand, same source, same location, easy to move, pump it over -- it's a winner. It's not an expensive solution. So dredging it, pumping it in, is a wonderful way to go if you can do it," Juros said.

The problem is not many communities can do it. The state won't approve permits to dredge unless a river or channel really needs to be dredged to allow for navigation.

Then there's the cost. Federal officials have cut back funding for dredging projects in New England. The Craigsville Beach project will cost about $55,000- a relatively small amount, because Barnstable County owns its own dredge. It's the only county in Massachusetts that does. Barnstable bought it with a million dollar contribution from the state.

Wayne Jaedtke is dredge superintendent for Barnstable County.

"The first year we started -- we started 17 years ago -- we had six projects. And this year we're up to 18 projects. I just expanded the crew this year. So now there's five of us."

Jaedtke expects demand to only grow. He said other counties are consulting with Barnstable and considering buying their own dredges, as the need for sand increases and beachfront communities run out of options. With snow having fallen and the holiday season in full swing, the last thing on your radar is probably the beach. But this is the time of year our neighbors who  live near the ocean fear the most. It's the winter when storms pound our coast and steal tons of sand from our beaches.

But beyond the long standing concerns of beach erosion, comes the cost communities are paying to replenish its beaches and looking for ways to better protect waterfront homes.

Our partners at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting have been looking further into this issue. Read the New England Center for Investigative Reporting full investigation here

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