Pouring money into beach sand makes no sense

ROGER SIMON

January 08, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I understand the need to preserve great landmarks.

All the money spent restoring Fort McHenry and manicuring its lawns has been worth it.

Every dime spent on the State House in Annapolis has been a dime well spent, though its occupants rarely have been worthy of its architecture.

Even the Bromo Seltzer Tower is worth its upkeep in my book.

But Ocean City? How many more millions of dollars are we going to throw into the sea to preserve a string of T-shirt shops?

OK, so I exaggerate. There is more to Ocean City than just T-shirt shops.

There are fudge shops and pinball arcades, too.

Ocean City is perched atop a barrier island. A barrier island is God's way of lending us land. And someday He is going to want it back.

Last weekend, He went for it.

A big storm, a classic nor'easter, hit Ocean City. The damage estimate has been set at over a million dollars to private and public property.

Not included in that figure, however, is the tens of millions of dollars lost in sand.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, about 80 percent of a dune that was built to protect Ocean City has been washed away. The dune was part of a $44 million beach reclamation and preservation project that began in 1988.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who has been active in preserving Ocean City, took to the airwaves after the storm to say: "Thank God we only lost sand."

But what Mikulski should have said is: "Thank God we only lost a lot of very, very, expensive sand."

Hundreds of thousands of people enjoy Ocean City each year (they go there, anyway), and there are high-rises and shops and houses. And so some people have concluded we must preserve it.

But the true cost of that preservation (and whether that preservation is really possible at any cost) is something rarely faced up to.

There have been a few stories: That $44 million spent to preserve Ocean City is just the beginning. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to keep replenishing the sand.

How many hundreds of millions nobody seems to know.

In 1989, the Government Accounting Office estimated that protecting Ocean City would cost $266 million over the next 50 years.

Some thought that figure was incredibly low. Duke University VTC Ocean Geologist Orrin H. Pilkey Jr. said the sand would have to be replaced every four years at a cost of $300 million.

This is because, in our fight against Nature, we are hopelessly outmatched. Consider what happened last weekend:

After years of work by man to build up the sand dune at Ocean City, 80 percent of it is washed away in a matter of hours.

By one storm! Not even a hurricane. After a storm last fall, in which the Ocean City sand dune also lost sand, Department of Natural Resources Secretary Torrey Brown, who definitely believes in seeing the glass half full, said: "If you walked away unhurt from a 60 mph collision in your car, you wouldn't moan that your air bag was dented."

Not the most apt metaphor in the world, however. Air bags are relatively cheap. Beaches are not. Air bags are easily and quickly replaced. Beaches are not.

Which is another problem: The storm season in this part of the country is just starting. And CBS News also reported Monday that because of the El Nino effect (a weather condition in the equatorial Pacific that alters climate worldwide) we can expect more frequent and more severe storms in the Middle Atlantic states for the next four to five years.

So if our air bag is 80 percent gone and Ocean City gets socked with another storm before we can replace it, what will happen?

Exactly what is supposed to happen: The sea will reclaim the land.

Which some think is inevitable no matter how much money we spend. Thomas L. Hartman, superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina said "it is neither cost effective nor economically feasible to attempt massive shoreline stabilization" and that inevitably "natural shoreline processes will prevail."

Yet Torrey Brown has said that we cannot "support the abandonment of Ocean City to destruction by the forces of nature."

But why not? Why not admit our mistakes instead of spending millions of dollars to commit them over and over again?

Sure Ocean City produces tax revenue for the state every summer. But it costs us millions in tax dollars, too. Besides, we could move the T-shirt shops and arcades off the barrier island and they would still produce revenue.

If we stop pouring money into artificially preserving the Ocean City beach, nature eventually will take over.

New patterns of sea and land will form over time. And future generations will be able to walk out to it or paddle out to it and enjoy just the land and grasses and water.

Instead of the condos and miniature golf courses and french fry shops.

And what would be so bad about that?

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