- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Each summer, beach lovers soak up the sun near the waves. They slap on some sunscreen and pick their spot on the sand. They may sleep the day away to the sounds of the ocean or read a good book.

Probably few people, however, realize the vast amount of work that goes into maintaining beaches, says Jordan Loran, Eastern Region engineer for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis.

“They come and enjoy the beach,” he says. “Most people would probably rather sit on the beach and sunbathe and not worry about it.”

Beach erosion, the natural process by which sand is worn away from a beach, costs taxpayers millions of dollars each year to reverse. Government agencies work together to maintain the beaches so that their use continues to provide revenue. Saving the beaches also protects the buildings and roads near them from storms.

One example is the Ocean City Beach Replenishment and Hurricane Protection Project, started in 1986 and employing the resources of city, county, state and federal governments. Ocean City Beach is a barrier island, and it erodes about 2 feet per year. A barrier island is a narrow island running parallel to the mainland, built up by the action of waves and currents. It essentially protects the coast from erosion by surf and tidal surges.

During the winter, winds from the northeast push the sand down the shoreline and away from the beach. In the summer, the currents are reversed, which brings back some sand, but not enough to rebuild the entire beach.

Rock jetties that extend from the shore to protect the beach against erosion and trap shifting sands didn’t sufficiently combat the problem. Therefore, in 1988, the state of Maryland, in partnership with Worcester County and Ocean City, headed a program that moved sand through hydraulic dredging, using machines equipped with scooping or suction devices.

The two main types of dredges used in the project were cutterhead dredges and hopper dredges. Cutterhead dredges use a giant drill that descends to the bottom of the ocean about 2 miles offshore. It sucks sand from about 30 to 45 feet below sea level, which then is sent back to the beach through miles of pipe connected to the dredge. Hopper dredges, which are free-floating, suck sand off the bottom of the ocean and pump it into a large tub. The vessel sails near the shore to a pipe, where the sand is suctioned out of the hopper onto the beach.

While the sand is being collected, caution is taken so that sea life on the ocean floor isn’t harmed. For instance, a screen is placed on the front of the suction device, preventing animals, such as turtles, from being abducted accidentally in the process.

The 1988 dredging project cost about $14 million and made the beach flatter and wider. From 1990 to 1994, the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracted outside companies to complete more dredging, which cost about $48 million. The workers created sand dunes to protect the beach from large waves or storms. The project also involved building a 1.8-mile steel bulkhead beneath the boardwalk, which runs from Fourth Street to 27th Street.

Currently, the Baltimore District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts companies about every four years to provide supplemental beach replenishment. Contracted companies pumped more sand off the ocean floor in 1998, costing $8.9 million, and in 2002, costing $4.6 million.

Without adding sand to the beach, it still costs about $220,000 a year for other routine maintenance, such as repairing fences and planting grass. This spring, workers repaired storm damage to the area through such activities as using dump trucks to even out the sand on the beach.

Despite the amount of money used to maintain Ocean City Beach, it’s small in comparison to the $85 million in revenue the beach brings to the state of Maryland every year, says Nancy Howard, a member of the Ocean City Municipality Council.

“We’re doing this for the close to 4 million people who come to Ocean City every year and the thousands of people who own houses and condos here,” she says. “We have a lot of wonderful restaurants, but we have one major asset: the beach. If our beach isn’t there, they will go to someone else’s beach.”

In 1996, a similar project was started in Virginia Beach called the Virginia Beach, Beach Erosion Control and Hurricane Protection Project, says Phil Roehrs, coastal engineer in the office of beach management for the city of Virginia Beach. The project gets financial assistance from city and federal sources.

Although there had been plans to address erosion in the area since 1951, this is the most comprehensive plan created to combat the problem. The first item the project called for was a new sea wall on the seaward side of the boardwalk to protect against coastal storms. It was built in phases during the winter from 1996 to 2000. The Norfolk District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led the effort with the city of Virginia Beach contributing funds.

The two groups also placed 4 million cubic yards of sand on the beach through hydraulic dredging from June 2001 to March 2002, which cost $22.5 million. The plan calls for replenishing 1 million cubic yards of sand every three years.

Keeping the beaches looking their best is important because tourism generates a direct tax revenue to the city ranging from $40 million to $60 million per year, Mr. Roehrs says. Although some people argue that the money spent to replenish the beaches should go to other causes, such as local schools, he believes otherwise.

“While there are other financial areas that need to be addressed, it only makes sense to replenish the beaches to maintain the revenue systems,” he says. “The tourism industry generates about 11,000 jobs.”

Because about 5.1 million people travel to Delaware beaches on day trips each summer, the state government there also is concerned about how to replenish the asset, says Tony Pratt, shoreline manager for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control for the state of Delaware in Dover.

Delaware state government has been paying the full cost of maintaining the beaches. About $1.8 million is spent annually for their replenishment. The last time hydraulic dredging took place for the shorelines was in 1998.

Mr. Pratt anticipates that 65 percent of the upcoming 2004 replenishment cost will be funded through federal money, with 35 percent from the state. However, the federal share is dependent on passage of the 2004 budget. In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been studying Delaware beaches to see what it might do to help.

“We can replace the sand that’s lost and buy ourselves a fair amount of time and enjoyment of this resource,” Mr. Pratt says. “The problem is, we have permanent structures on impermanent land forms.”

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