Breakthrough at Assateague

September 29, 1994

The propensity of humans to tinker with the forces of nature often leads to greater problems, more complicated solutions and ever higher costs. It's a paradigm manifest in the fight to control nature and beach erosion along Maryland-Delaware vacation seashore. Now the specter is raised over the Atlantic barrier island of Assateague, which is threatened with a breakthrough by coastal storms that could bring disaster to developments along the Maryland mainland and Ocean City.

The possible scenarios and remedies are discussed in an Army Corps of Engineers report that warns of a breach in the northern six miles of the sand island by powerful storms sometime in the near future. The potential impacts of such a storm-cut inlet include lowered water levels, impassable channels for sport and commercial boaters, and degraded water quality around Ocean City. And the flooding of mainland homes that are now protected from the ocean's force by the slender buffer strip of Assateague Island.

The Corps of Engineers study points out several options, from doing nothing to spending $66 million to replenish sand and reinforce the endangered northern spit of the island, plus $5 million in yearly repair costs.

By doing nothing, natural processes may heal the accelerating erosion of the island's vulnerable northern stretch off Sinepuxent Bay. The formation of an offshore sandbar noted by the corps could build up and retard the erosion of Assateague, some environmental activists argue.

The strongest pressure for human intervention to gird the island against devastating storms will be heard from Ocean City and property owners along the mainland shore. Their economic stake is enormous, as is the state's, in preserving the status quo; man's replenishment of the vacation beach is an accepted way of life there.

The problem of Assateague's shrinking is in large part caused by construction of two large stone jetties 60 years ago that separate Assateague and Ocean City. The jetties have stopped the natural ocean flow of sand to replenish the island, yet are essential to Ocean City's vital boating activity.

These vast differences in approach demand further expedited study of possible remedies. Efforts by Maryland's Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes to get $600,000 for a shared study by the Army corps and the National Park Service, which manages the northern part of Assateague as national seashore, merits urgent support. More information is needed before committing to a long-term, costly solution with major effects on both island and shore.

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