"From the Dunes, a Village Emerges" was the headline in the New York Times recently describing the reconstruction of the Village of West Hampton Dunes in New York's fabled Hamptons with tons upon tons of sand that have been and will be dumped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--paid for by $80 million in taxpayer dollars.
"It's an extraordinary sight, this city of sand," waxed the Times writer. "With no trees, or greenery of any type, houses appear to be rising out of a desert." She noted how "the community...had shriveled from 300 to 65 houses after years of pummeling by the Atlantic Ocean" and after "storms in l992 and l993 left few believing there would be a village [any longer. But in one of those rare David-Goliath-and-David-Wins events, West Hampton Dunes has come back. 'After the Bible,' Village Mayor Gary Vegliante said, 'this is the greatest story ever told.'"
That is one way of looking at it. Another, far more realistic way is how specialists in beach dynamics describe the building of rock-jetties called "groins" or the placement of sand along the beach: expensive folly.
The newest analysis of the issue is "The Corps and the Shore," a book published last year written by Orrin H. Pilkey, a geology professor at Duke University and pioneer in showing the futility of warring against MotherNature on our coasts, and Katherine L. Dixon, research associate at Duke's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
Neither "hard stabilization" or "soft stabilization" of beaches makes sense, they demonstrate. Of "armoring" a beach with "groins," seawalls and the like, it "destroys the beach, it's ugly, and it reduces beach workability," they stress.
Barrier beaches must be able to move with nature--to stay in ecological balance (and that way, best protect the mainland) and not be subjected to an attempt to freeze them in place to suit real estate interests.
Further, "once you start, you cannot stop" with beach "armoring," states "The Corps and the Shore." A "groin" will catch some sand and for a time protect a piece of beach, but it does that by blocking sand from moving in the ocean's littoral drift to another beach. "All structures eventually cause sand supply deficits on adjacent beaches" leading to more "armoring. Seawalls get longer, single groins become groin fields."
Finally, "armoring" destroys a beach. New Jersey is the prime example. "Time and tide quickly caught up with the houses and hotels along the Jersey Shore, and people began to build seawalls and groins. to protect them," they write. "What become apparent after a century of shoreline armoring was that those hard stabilization structures...destroyed the beach--the very reason the buildings where there to begin with. `New Jerseyization' eventually became the term used for the process of stemming erosion at the price of the beach."
Moreover, "It costs more to save the property than it is worth... The cost of most efforts to stabilize an eroding shoreline with hard structuresexceeds the value of the property to be saved."
As for "soft stabilization" dumping sand along a beach--it is "always expensive and always temporary" and "of questionable merit as a long-term coastal management strategy." A chapter in "The Corps and the Shore" is devoted to various multi-million dollar schemes at "replenishing" beaches with sand--just to see the sand wash away in inevitable storms.
However, the construction contract-hungry Army Corps of Engineers relishes beach construction jobs which keep the Corps busy and budget fact, and those who have built beach houses on shifting sands in the teeth of the ocean eagerly desire taxpayer-supported efforts at trying to defend them. The beach house owners, not exactly a poverty-stricken set, are well-organized and have been easily able to manipulate politicians into supporting beach work through campaign contributions.
One of the biggest coastal jobs currently being pushed forward by the Corps of Engineers and beach house owners is a $59 million plan to dump sand on the beach of Fire Island, a 32- mile slender ribbon of sand in the Atlantic Ocean east of New York City.
It is a possible prelude to an even bigger scheme--priced at nearly $800 million in one Corps document--to do additional "stabilization" of the Long Island coast, including more in the Hamptons, a "reformulation" of a nearly 35-year-old Corps' scheme to build dozens of groins and dump gargantuan amounts of sand along the island's south shore from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point.
The Corps wants the $59 million Fire Island sand-dumping to come first--and to do that as an "interim" project, without a full Environmental Impact Statement as legally required, stresses the U.S. Department of Interior which has been challenging the Corps' Fire Island plan.
New York's Congressman Rick Lazio, whose district includes Fire Island and has been working with beach house interests, is reaching to the top of Interior these days to clear the way for the sand-dumping. "The Brightwaters Republican has been in personal contact with Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, urging his personal involvement in finding a solution under which the Fire Island Interim Project can go forward," notes the current newsletter of the Fire Island Association.
The conflict between the Corps and Interior has gone to the President's Council on Environmental Quality, and former Congressman Tom Downey, defeated by Mr. Lazio and who, during his time in Congress, was also close to the beach house owners, and is now a lobbyist in Washington, has been seeking on behalf of the Fire Island Association a council O.K. for the Corps' position.
From sources, I've obtained some of the documentation between Downey and the Council on Enviromental Quality. The Fire Islanders have a well-positioned lobbyist in Democrat Downey, someone still tight with the Clinton administration. This is reflected in some of the letters I've obtained: Downey signs them, above his full typed name, with a simple: "T."
To Kathleen A. McGinty, chair of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, Downey wrote: "Katie, I would greatly appreciate your personal attention so that the issues impeding this much needed project can be resolved without any further delay."
And in GOPer Lazio, the Fire Island beach house owners have a well-positioned member of the Republican House of Representatives. While waiting for the Corps-Interior battle to be concluded, Lazio had no problem in recent weeks getting House approval for a $5 million study on Fire Island beach needs. The Senate is to vote on that next month.
Government money may be lacking these days for education, medical care, housing, environmental protection--to mention just a few vital areas needing support and not getting hardly enough--but when it comes to beach work, getting tax money is no problem.
Meanwhile, utilizing the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find out about what is going on is quite a problem. The Freedom of Information Act became law in 1968 so government could be opened up to journalistic and citizen scrutiny.
I have been seeking, under FOIA, correspondence, reports and other documents about the Fire Island deal in the works. In May, I requested from the Corps and the President's Council on Environmental Quality, a variety of reports and correspondence including communications between the government and the Fire Island Association and Downey. Under FOIA, U.S. government agencies are supposed to respond quickly with the information sought. Stonewalling of FOIA requests by government are usually attempts by to hide information government does not want out.
I have been advised by a Corps officer that the agency considers the information I seek not releasable under FOIA. The Council on Environmental Quality is not even acknowledging my FOIA request, despite repeated follow-up telephone calls.
The New Yorker magazine--yes, The New Yorker--has chimed in with an important article on beach work. "Beachless" was the title of the piece, in the December 16, 1996 New Yorker. Its subtitle: "Hurricanes Wreck the Shoreline--But Not As Much As Our Efforts to Save It."
This article begins with the tale of Topsail in North Carolina, regularly battered by hurricanes, including Hurricane Fran last September. "Topsail looked as if it had been bombed," Wade Graham, the author of "Beachless," related. "The devastation should have come as no surprise. The island got its name, in the 18th century, because its extreme narrowness and flatness allowed sailors on side to glimpse the topsails of pirate ships hidden on the opposite side. Geologists have long listed Topsail as among the most storm-vulnerable barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast."
John Wells, a coastal geologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, declared after Fran hit Topsail: "We knew the kind of consequences that would be suffered from a hit, and all that came true. Now's the time to plant ourselves rigidly on that piece of real estate--and others--and say `No.'"
But as in the case of West Hampton Dunes and Fire Island, the Corps of Engineers and politicians are not saying "no"--but "yes" with a mountain of tax dollars, noted author Graham. Some $460 million has been allocated since Fran struck to try to repair beach damage caused by the hurricane to Topsail and other coastal areas "and that amount will rise."
Most of the repair is futile: more hand-wrestling with God along the shore.
"The emblem of the United States Corps of Engineers," writes Graham, "is, fittingly enough, a fortified castle: what began for the purpose of national defense against human invaders has, over the years, become a military campaign against natural forces."
Graham traces the roots of the Corps' war against nature. They begin with construction of "battlefield fortificiations" in the Revolutionary War expanding in "subsequent conflicts...to include the construction of defense against naval threats and the management of navigable waterways. By the 1820s, the Corps was building jetties and seawalls...In this century, the Corps has spent billions of dollars to deploy and maintain its arsenal of engineered solutions to natural depredations on all the country's shorelines."
As to truly strengthening beaches, the Corps' taxpayer-supported efforts to strengthen the coastline does, in fact, the opposite, declares Graham. He cites the work of coastal geologists--including Pilkey--who have found that "while hardened structures may save buildings, it actually accelerates beach erosion, bringing about the gradual disappearance of the natural resource that inspired people to build there in the first place."
He quotes Pilkey as saying the work the Corps of Engineers has been doing along the coasts of the U.S. involves a "fundamental misunderstanding of the beach."
He relates Pilkey's findings that "far from needing protection...beaches are protection--the continent's defense against the sea. The beach performs a kind of judo: it absorbs storm assaults by changing its shape, then rebuilds itself during the periods when waves are relatively gentle. Pilkey notes that a beach's set of responses to changes in the sea are so subtle and effective, so seemingly intelligent, that geologists call it `beach behavior.'"
"During storms, the beach gives up to waves sand that has been stockpiled in dunes, and the waves then carry the sand seaward and drop it on the bottom. This additional sand makes the beach flatter, and thereby forces waves to shoal and break easrlier, thus lessening erosion.When calm seas return, the sand that has been moved offshore is slowly carried landward again by the orbital motion of the gentler waves, allowing the beach's defense to rebuild."
"Once a beach becomes `engineered," writes Graham, "it is, in effect, prohibited from responding to storm waves by flattening and becoming progressively steeper, thus increasing wave energy instead of asborbing it."
But the Army Corps of Engineers and beach house owners don't want to know about the realities of beach dynamics. They'd rather just continue to use millions and billions of dollars of tax money to try to bail out houses built where structures have little long-term future: on the beach.
What can you do? Learn about the folly of beach work. Pick up a copy of "The Corps and the Shore" by Orrin H. Pilkey and Katherine L. Dixon, and some of the many previous books on the subject by Pilkey including his classic "The Beaches Are Moving, written with Wallace Kaufman. Read Wade Graham's "Beachless" in the December 16, 1996 The New Yorker.
Get politically active! Demand the Clinton administration and your congressperson representates all the U.S. taxpayers when it comes to the coast -- not just beach house owners,
And help your columnist out in his quest to get documents under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act about the proposed Fire Island sand-dumping boondoggle.Tell them to end their agencies' cover-up on the proposed Fire Island sand-dumping. With your help, I'll get it--and share it with you.
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