Replenishment sand drawn from offshore


May 15, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

Ocean City -- It's Mother Nature vs. Ocean City. Again.

Mother Nature wants to take about two feet of this resort city's beach every year through erosion. The city wants to keep it.

"We're not going to just let it wash into the sea!" says Nancy Howard, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

So, for the next two months, the city will put back what Mother Nature is using the Atlantic Ocean to take away: A hopper dredge called (appropriately) the Long Island will make two trips a day, bringing 11,000 cubic yards of sand from about three miles offshore, then dumping it onto the beach.

The beach replenishment, which began April 29, will continue through the end of June. The project is a cooperative effort between federal, state and local authorities, and the actual dredging is contracted out to Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, an Oak Brook, Ill.-based company.

The replenishment is restricted by Mother Nature on one side and Ocean City's tourism on the other: Dredging can't be done during the winter because the Atlantic is too rough. And the city doesn't want the project going on during July and August, when the city is home to some 300,000 sun- and pleasure-seekers. So the dredging is done in spring and early summer.

Most visitors and residents see and hear only one part of the project: the bulldozers that plane the sand as it's dumped by the dredge. And it's not even the roar of the bulldozers that generates the most complaints, says Ms. Howard: It's that federally mandated safety feature that makes the vehicles beep-beep-beep when they back up.

"All the general pumping noise is 1,000 feet offshore, so that's never been a problem," Ms. Howard says, adding that 99 percent of Ocean City residents and visitors don't complain.

"Most grin and bear it," she says. They know the project is restoring the beach they've come to enjoy.

But the annoying beep is only one tiny part of the 50-year project.

A mile and a half offshore is a floating sand-moving factory: the hopper dredge Long Island. The dredge is red, has a 34-foot hull, is 75 feet wide and half the length of an aircraft carrier (510 feet long), says project manager Dave Rappe. The Long Island weighs 9,500 tons empty, Mr. Rappe says, and with a full load of sand weighs 30,000 tons. Wet sand is heavy.

The dredge isn't self-propelled, Mr. Rappe says, so a tug is hitched to it to provide engine power. The tug rides at the back in a specially designed bay, a kind of notch in the boat, and pushes the dredge in front of it. A crew of about nine people monitor the sand flow into -- or out of, if the dredge is unloading -- four enormous hoppers.

The dredge's giant arms drop hoses onto the borrow site (the source of the sand being pumped onto the beach).

"It's like pulling two vacuum cleaners backwards," Mr. Rappe says. "They drop vacuum-type heads on the bottom, draw the sand upward and fill the hopper."

The dredge is so large that on a recent day when seas were choppy and the swell was strong out of the south, it was barely possible to tell the deck was rolling slightly. Dredge workers moved about their tasks -- monitoring pump pressure, checking the hoppers -- surrounded by the steady roar of the engines and pumps.

Undoing Mother Nature's work is a 24-hour-a-day, industrial-size job. When the dredge is pumping its sand onto the beach, 100 tons of sand a minute move through the 30-inch pipe, says Dave Howard, a projects manager with Great Lakes.

The borrow site has been carefully chosen, says Steven Auernhamer, the project's supervisor.

"It's an area that has sand that's suitable for the beach -- relatively coarse sand that's going to stay on the beach a little longer" than finer sand, he says.

The project is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the first dredging began in 1988. The costs are shared by the federal government, which pays 65 percent, and state and local governments. The state pays half of the remaining 35 percent, and the town of Ocean City and Worcester County divide the remainder equally, paying 8.75 percent each.

This year's replenishment, directed at the area south of 88th Street, is expected to cost $7.9 million, Ms. Howard says, and at the end of this year, $50 million will have been spent on the project.

"We're not going to have to do it every year," she says. There was no replenishment last year, and none in 1989, a year after the project began.

And Ms. Howard is quick to point out that it's an extremely lucrative investment: Ocean City returns $85 million to the state each year through taxes and revenues, she says.

"Imagine, if you could come in as an investor, put up $50 million and get back $85 million each year," she says. "I'd take it!"

The Army Corps of Engineers, which designed the long-term project, expects it to last about 50 years, she says, and plans call for dredging every four years. But last year's Atlantic storms eroded the beach more than usual, so dredging was scheduled for this year.

In the end, of course, there's no doubt about who will win the contest: Mother Nature will. Eventually.

"The sand will continue to move, no matter what we do," says Ms. Howard. "All we're doing is giving Mother Nature a nice buffer zone. We're saying, 'Don't take the people.' "

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