UM's 'Dr. Beach' honored for oceanic knowledge of seacoasts

May 03, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

They call him "Dr. Beach," and he seems to bask in it.

Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at the University of Maryland, got the moniker from his students. The press began using it after a reporter from Conde Nast Traveler magazine asked him in 1989 to list the country's 10 best beaches.

In a rush to make a flight to China, the expert on coastal erosion rattled off the first 10 pristine beaches that came to mind. He returned a month later to national attention and a flood of phone calls. Some resort communities wanted to use the list for promotion; others were distressed that they weren't on it.

Stunned by how seriously people took the list, Dr. Leatherman decided to make it bigger and more scientific, with 50 survey criteria -- from litter and noise to water quality and sand softness. His Top 20 lists have made national news every spring since.

Dr. Beach, 46, an international expert on rising sea levels and coastal erosion, has been a congressional witness and is the author of nine books. He recently won a $720,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a three-year study of East Coast beach erosion patterns.

Q: With teaching and research to do, why do you bother with the Top 20 Beaches list?

A: I sometimes wonder that myself. It is a lot of work. But everybody expects it, and I enjoy it. It keeps me in touch with the beaches and it provides a lot of travel.

There must be more. Is it money, publicity, or the fact that the resorts flinch if they look bad and scramble to fix what you've criticized?

The magazines don't pay much -- $3,000 to $5,000. And I've never gotten any grants or consulting work out of it to my knowledge. It's sort of like a power trip. States can pass regulations, but I can say one thing about them, and they listen.

Except for one year, you have always favored wild, undeveloped beaches. Has that brought you criticism from built-up resorts?

Yes. Daytona Beach [Fla.] asked me how they could increase their rating. I said, 'Get the vehicles off the beach.' The survey has value in terms of trying to balance nature and development. We have enough Ocean Citys if people want high-rise, densely packed vacations.

Q: This year's winners were Grayton Beach, on Florida's panhandle, and Kailua in Hawaii. Maryland's Assateague Island National Seashore has fallen from the Top 20. How come?

A: It's still in the top 30 [actually, No. 26], but it has suffered from a mosquito problem. It's still my favorite beach, but you don't want to get stuck on Assateague after dark if the wind's not blowing.

Q: What does the Mellon Foundation want for its $720,000?

A: It's almost like a gift. They said, 'What are you interested in doing? We'd like to support your research.' I've put in two ideas. One thing that's occurring now is that communities are going to something called 'beach dewatering' to try and stop erosion. It's a new concept which hasn't been proven, but people are so desperate to stop erosion they'll do anything.

Q: Why not just pump sand onto the beach? That seems to have worked at Ocean City.

A: That's beach nourishment, but you're looking at $6 million a mile. If you wanted to protect a small area, beach nourishment projects aren't usually economical. With beach dewatering, you put pipes under the sand that lead to a pump, and you're actually lowering the water table under the beach. That causes the swash [waves] to percolate more into the beach and causes more sand to be deposited. And these are relatively inexpensive.

Q: Does it seem to work?

A: There is a demonstration plant now . . . in Stuart, Fla., which has shown some success. . . . But nobody has ever studied the science behind this thing. A lot of people say this is nuts because you're trying to pump down the ocean. It's not quite doing that. It's locally lowering the water table on the beach.

Q: Where else are they considering these systems?

A: We're going to install one at Duck, N.C., where the Corps of Engineers has the most instrumented beach in the world. There's one at Englewood, Fla., on the Gulf Coast, which isn't doing very well. A new one is being proposed and will probably be built at Nantucket. There's one proposed for Bethany Beach, Del.

Q: What's the second project you'll undertake with the Mellon grant?

A: At least 70 percent, and I think up to 90 percent of our sandy beaches are eroding. I want to see if there are certain modes or patterns by which shorelines change over time. I think there are.

L A: How do you get public officials to plan for such changes?

Q: The problem is, you're looking at maybe a 40- , 50- , 60-year cycle, and it's hard for people to understand cycles that long. Look at the time frame people use these days for planning -- the next election, right?

I've identified now about 10 or 15 different modes of shoreline behavior. If we understand these patterns of change, and we understand these time frames . . . you shouldn't allow people to develop there. You should set a firm line based on the understanding of that science.

=1 And that's what I hope to do with this study.

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