- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Md. — Like a sand castle before an advancing tide, the northern end of this 37-mile-long barrier island slowly washes away.
Wind and water have been rolling Assateague west for eons, but a jetty built in 1935 to preserve an inlet between Ocean City and Assateague has blocked a replenishing flow of sand from the sea.
Since then, the island's northern end has eroded in some stretches to only a few hundred yards wide and a few feet above sea level. National Park Service officials say a strong storm or two could trigger the breakup of this island famous for wild horses.
"Ultimately, the northern end of the island will just disappear," says Carl Zimmerman, chief of resource management at Assateague Island National Seashore.
To prevent that, the Park Service has devised a 25-year, $50-million-plus beach-restoration plan that pumps millions of yards of sand ashore. The effort, scheduled to start this fall, has been designed to minimize any adverse environmental impact, Mr. Zimmerman says.
Environmentalists such as Mildred Kriemelmeyer, however, say the plan is futile, environmentally suspect and a waste of taxpayers' money.
"You just can't keep fighting Mother Nature and fighting water," says Ms. Kriemelmeyer, former president of the Maryland Conservation Coalition. The coalition, an umbrella group for state environmental organizations, opposes the two-stage restoration plan.
In the short term, the Army Corps of Engineers will dredge sand from a shoal four miles offshore and pump it onto the northern end of the island.
The 1.8 million cubic yards of sand will create a new strip of beach 5 1/2 miles long, 100 feet wide and up to 6 feet deep starting 1.6 miles south of the jetty. It will include a 2 1/2-foot-high berm to minimize storm surges across the island.
In the long term, the corps will dredge 190,000 cubic yards of sand twice a year from shoals created by the jetty closer to shore, south of Ocean City. The corps then will dump the sand off Assateague and let waves wash it ashore, mimicking what would occur naturally if the jetty hadn't been built.
The first stage will cost $19.1 million and the second $30 million to $50 million over 25 years, corps project manager Dara Liew says.
The corps will fund the first phase, while the corps and National Park Service will split funding of the second phase, Mr. Zimmerman says. Congress already has authorized $35 million; more funding depends on future appropriations bills.
Ms. Kriemelmeyer doubts the government would spend any money countering Assateague's erosion if it weren't for the burgeoning waterfront development across Sinepuxent Bay, the shallow coastal waterway separating the island and the mainland.
"Nobody would care if those houses weren't on the shoreline over on West Ocean City," she says.
Taxpayers would come out ahead if the government bought out property owners instead of trying to restore Assateague, Ms. Kriemelmeyer says. "It would be cheaper and a better use of the money than to constantly pour sand on that island when it's just going to wash away," she says.
Mr. Zimmerman says if the northern end of Assateague disappears, "that mainland property's going to be oceanfront property," but he says there are other compelling reasons to keep the island intact.
Assateague is an ecological treasure, the only natural barrier-island habitat in Maryland. Besides its horses, Assateague hosts scores of migratory bird species.
More than 2 million people visit the National Seashore every year to marvel at its wildlife, hunt, fish and camp on its beaches, the Park Service says. The island's endangered northern end also includes a small park run by the state of Maryland.
Assateague has become a significant tourist attraction as an unspoiled alternative to Ocean City's high-density development, Mr. Zimmerman says.
"The bottom line is, you're going to lose a valuable recreational resource," he adds.
The disappearance of the island's northern end also would make it more difficult and expensive to maintain both the navigation channel on the bay side and the Ocean City inlet, Mr. Zimmerman says.
The threatened portion of the island also is home to threatened species, including a small bird called the piping plover and a plant called the seabeach amaranth.
"It's very valuable wildlife habitat," Mr. Zimmerman says but what the Park Service sees as environmental protection looks more like destruction to environmentalists such as Ms. Kriemelmeyer.
Dredging millions of yards of sand from the ocean floor will disrupt the habitat of creatures in the shoals and the fish that feed on them, she says, and dumping sand on the island will disturb plovers nesting on the beach.
Mr. Zimmerman says the dredging will take sand in shallow scoops across a wide area, minimizing environmental disruption. Most of the sand will be placed below the area where plovers nest and feed, he says.
William A. Smith jokingly tells a visitor that he'll have to leave if he mentions piping plovers. Mr. Smith, 87, and his wife, Harriet, 82, are waiting impatiently for the beach restoration to begin.
The Smiths have owned a small house across Sinepuxent Bay from the island since 1968. They never experienced a flood until a 1992 northeaster created a storm surge that left them with three feet of water on the first floor.
"It was like a tidal wave," Harriet Smith says.
That storm washed away Assateague dunes that had slowed the flow of water across the island. The Smiths and their neighbors in Snug Harbor endured another devastating flood in 1998 before the Army engineers built a temporary sand berm on the island's northern end.
Harriet Smith has little patience with environmentalists such as Ms. Kriemelmeyer. "They'd rather see us flooded out and take care of those little birds," she says.

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