Untamed Sands

July 17, 1994|By TOM HORTON

Though it's a cool day for late spring and not even the weekend, vacationers' cars are pouring across the bridges into Ocean City. Dennis Dare, the resort's town manager, is feeling good about the state of his beach. "Clean and safe," he says, when asked the first words that come to mind to describe the 10-mile sand spit. To keep it that way, O. C. spends more than $1.5 million a year on lifeguards and nightly trash pickup and sand grooming.

If Mr. Dare wanted to make a bad pun, he might say his town is feeling "pumped" about its future. A bright red dredge, half as long as an aircraft carrier, lies a couple of miles offshore from 81st Street, sucking nearly two tons of sand a second from the ocean bed and spewing it from 30-inch piping onto the beach -- enough, by year's end, to repair old erosion and add a sacrificial paunch to the beach to absorb the damage from future storms.

Since it began in 1988, the project has pumped almost 8 million cubic yards of sand to the beach; think of it as 1,600,000 dump trucks' worth. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the 50-year cost, including periodic maintenance pumping but excluding repairs from "catastrophic storms," is about $500 million -- or $1 million a mile, annually.

The town's share of that cost is only about $130,000 a mile. Federal funds account for around $470,000, and the state and Worcester County provide the remaining $400,000. It's a bargain for all, Mr. Dare says, given the $80 million or so generated in tax revenues every year by Ocean City. The million-dollar-a-mile beach protects property whose value is getting close to $1 billion a square mile. "You buy land here," Mr. Dare says, "by the square foot."

UNFETTERED NATURE

A few miles south and a world away, flocks of migrating shorebirds wheel and flash in marvelous synchrony across the jade and foam of surf. Elongating, dissolving, compacting, each flock is sentient smoke, shape-shifting as easily as feathered thought. West from the beach, beyond zones of dune and bayberry thicket, the salt marsh is greening, festooned prettily with egrets and herons, raucous with willets and oystercatchers.

There, at National Park Service headquarters for Assateague Island, Carl Zimmerman, a naturalist, is as excited as Mr. Dare but for a different reason: prospects for parts of the national seashore's 20-mile stretch between Ocean City and the Virginia line.

One might wonder why Mr. Zimmerman is not alarmed instead. The areas he is pointing out on a recent satellite photo of the seashore look like a prelude to disaster. After being battered by fierce nor'easters in 1991 and 1992, the once-substantial dunes are eroding. In half a dozen areas they are nearly flattened, and fans of sand spreading across the width of the barrier island indicate that inlets may soon cut through to the marshes and back bays.

But Mr. Zimmerman applauds the progression of unfettered nature here. "We just hope it can continue," he says. Showcasing it is a mission of the Park Service, just as providing sun and fun -- and protecting the assessable tax base -- is the mission a few miles north in Ocean City. The same nor'easters that delighted the Park Service are the reason Ocean City is still pumping sand more than two years after its new beach was supposed to be finished.

But there is more going on here than just a neat and simple contrast of resort vs. park, of human domination vs. acceptance of nature. For, like it or not, the 47-mile seashore that runs from about the Delaware line to Chincoteague, Va., is historically and ecologically the same animal; its fate connected across mere political lines in ways just beginning to be fully appreciated.

Its occupants, besides the resort and the national park, include a major federal wildlife refuge and a small state park. Perhaps no comparably sized segment of the 2,700 miles of barrier island seashore from Maine to Texas is so diversely tenanted; or offers such a range of delights, from indoor ice-skating in sight of the dunes to back-country canoeing in sight of wild ponies. Nor does any other stretch of coastal sand present a more complex and intriguing stew of management issues.

Historically, Fenwick Island, which includes Ocean City, and Assateague Island, which runs from the Ocean City inlet to Chincoteague, were not islands at all. Paradoxically, they were also, at times, several islands. During the last few thousand years, rising sea level has eroded huge volumes of sand from Delaware's mainland. And, from what coastal geologists call a "nodal point," near South Bethany in Delaware, prevailing along-shore ocean currents have transported that sand southward. (Above Bethany, the net flow of sand is north.)

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