Beach replenishment and defending Delaware against future storms
Since last weekend’s winter storm, many people in Delaware have been digging themselves out of piles of snow. But residents along the coast are dealing with shrunken dunes and beach erosion.
Over the last 15 years, federal and state governments have spent over $100 million dollars to build up the beaches between Rehoboth and Fenwick Island. And more funds will be spent to repair the damage the recent storm caused to Delaware’s coastal dunes.
On a sunny and mild January morning, I’m watching three men shovel sand from the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk back onto the beach. One of them, William Frazier, worked during the entire storm.
"Yeah, it’s going to take a while to get this all straightened out," said Frazier, who also worked in Hurricane Sandy's aftermath.
Sand blankets the entire boardwalk. We’re at the the north end of it, where a 16 foot dune stood not too long ago. Nor’easter Joaquin in October bit off about three feet, but last weekend’s winter storm was what really finished it off.
Many folks in Delaware say that storm is a worthy challenger to the destructive 1962 Ash Wednesday storm. Last weekend’s storm coincided with the full moon high tides, bringing record-setting water levels to the low-lying town of Lewes.
But while officials are still assessing the storm’s impact, many, like Senator Tom Carper, say Delaware's coastal dunes and sand replenishment projects meant the damage didn’t extend past the beaches.
“From Fenwick Island, up to Lewes beach, we’ve spent tens of millions of dollars," said Carper. "And there’s been damage from this storm. The damage is isn’t to the boardwalk. Is not to businesses, to the homes, to the homes, not to the streets. It’s to the beach or the dune. Which have done their job.”
Still, this storm did serious damage to almost all of Delaware’s coastline, wiping out vegetation, uprooting fences and flooding marshes. And that has some officials, like DNREC’s Anthony Pratt, worried.
“If we have another storm like this in a couple weeks," said Pratt. "We’ll be in even worse conditions because then we’ll have hardly any dune left.”
Bill McSpadden’s house in Slaughter Beach is right on the coast of Delaware Bay. Before the storm, there were two dunes in his backyard that were already weakened in October.
"Up until the last storm in October we had a nice fore dune in front of our dune, and that was taken out in October," said McSpadden. "So this storm really came in and took away dune."
The storm also robbed him of his beach grass and pulled the pine trees up from his yard. He says that vegetation really helped hold down the sand. But seeing the drastic change in his backyard left him rather shaken.
"It was one of the worst storms I've been through," McSpadden. "I’ve been through the ones in the 1990s. To see this much destruction in a short period of time… really surprised me.
It’s not clear what caused this storm to be as massive as it was. But in recent years, scientific research has been drawing stronger connections between climate change, sea level rise and the frequency of intense nor’easters like this one. At the same time, scientists like University of Delaware’s Art Trembanis have been keeping track of how storms impact coastlines and how people have responded.
“And up through the early 2000s, on all of our coastlines," said Trembanis. "we’ve put somewhere north or 850 million cubic yards on our nation’s beaches. That’s enough to fill a thousand football stations to the brim.”
These storms provide a good opportunity for Trembanis to understand how storms shape coastlines. A little more than a day after the storm, he deployed his students to Broadkill Beach, at the site of a major renourishment project. The very tall dune, or berm, was still mostly intact. PhD student Stephanie Dohner pointed out one small section that it clearly punched through.
“You see these bulldozer going back and forth right now," said Dohner. That’s the only location we know of that Jonas breached on its own. So it made a cut through there.”
Dohner is supervising three other students, who are gathering data and sampling materials from the beach. Master’s student Tim Pilegard marched back and forth across the dune while carrying a backpack with a yellow, odd-shaped metal device sticking out.
“It’s basically a very high end GPS. So it gets location and altitude every two meters," said Pilegard. "We’ll do tracks across the big dune here and then we’ll go over 10 meters, come back and do it again.
The researchers call it “mowing the lawn.” And it’s very tedious.
With the data their team collected that day, Dohner thinks they might learn more about how the storm breached just that one part of the dune.
“The berm is designed to keep water from going through right?" said Dohner. "Maybe we’ll see why that happened.”
While it’s encouraging to see that federal and state investments, like the Broadkill nourishment project, have helped fend off the storm, Trembanis says that these beach renourishment projects aren’t sustainable. They’re merely band-aids.
“There’s often a quick response to say, ‘hey we did it, we survived. This defense system survived.’ And that’s great and that’s testament to the fine engineering work that went into it, but it’s a bit like celebrating like surviving the first round of a title fight with Mike Tyson," he said.
Because there are many, many punches ahead. But as long as people continue to live and develop in coastal areas, there’s not much else that can be done.
DNREC’s Anthony Pratt recognizes that it does seem futile to pile sand up over and over again -- but he says it’s worth doing, since the Delaware coast accounts for so much of the state’s economy and identity.
“It’s all part of an economic picture we put together and say, if we’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to restore the beaches, what do we get in return? And we get property protection, infrastructure, power lines, sewer lines aren’t knocked out...we say the tourism that exists within Delaware’s coast is extraordinarily valuable," said Pratt. "If we can maintain these beaches for several more decades, we’re going to see tremendous value out of that.”
And he says eventually, it will become more expensive to maintain the beaches than what they’re worth.
“Until that tipping point," said Pratt. "We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
But Trembanis hopes that officials don’t wait until that tipping point to really talk about the future of Delaware’s coast. Scientists and the media are calling this storm a “benchmark storm,” which Trembanis says is true if you look at its physical features. But the bigger question is if this is the storm changes how Delaware responds to them.
“Can we have the rational discussion in the wake of the storm," said Trembanis, " can we really then hold to it when the next event comes through to decide how we’re actually going to live with our coastline? Or are we going to keep repeating this time and time again?”
He says Delaware should remember how the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm changed the game for Assateague Island, along the southeastern Delmarva coast. Before that storm hit, there were all kinds of development plans on Assateague. But afterwards, people moved out. Congress made the island a national seashore, and a preserve for wild horses. And while it’s a nice place to visit, it’s not one that people can call home.