Shoring up Assateague before it washes away

Project would correct nature, human damage

April 09, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ASSATEAGUE -- If Marc Koenings had his druthers, he'd let nature take its course on the 37-mile finger of sand, pines and grasses where he's spent the past six years as superintendent for the U.S. Park Service.

But if he did, Assateague Island as we know it now would disappear.

The essence of any Atlantic barrier island is change -- the relentless swirl and tug of currents, waves and wind that drag sand and flattendunes, depositing them south or west in an unending pattern that shapes and reshapes the contours of Assateague Island National Seashore.

Trouble is, Assateague has almost become two islands, and to preserve it, Koenings and other state and federal officials say they will have to use seemingly opposite methods: up north, a multimillion-dollar restoration project; at its southern tip, a modest plan to go with the flow of sand and waves, abandoning past efforts to rebuild dunes and beaches.

At the northern end of the island, within sight of Ocean City's resort high-rises, is a six- to eight-mile sand-starved strip that surely will be destroyed by the next big storm. Across the Virginia line near Chincoteague is a barrier island system that Koenings says is "largely a natural phenomenon," moving sand from ocean beach to land that was bayside marsh.

Two years after a series of winter storms pounded the island, Assateague's northern portion remains devastated.

A flat plain of white sand precariously close to sea level, it is waiting for the first installment of a $17.2 million Army Corps of Engineers plan to dredge more than 1.4 million cubic meters of sand (enough to fill 183,000 standard dump trucks) from the Great Gull Bank about three miles offshore, spreading it over an area from the Ocean City inlet to Assateague State Park.

A January storm that dumped snow on much of Maryland wiped out most of a $2 million emergency replenishment completed in September 1998, again leaving the north end vulnerable.

"If we don't do something soon, the northern end, including the state park, is history," said Koenings. "After the nor'easters we had in '98, it became very evident that a storm is going to come along eventually and take it out."

State parks workers bulldozed sand at low tide several times this winter to shore up the beach, and officials hope to restore some of the dunes in the 859-acre state park, according to Jordan Loran, eastern region engineer for the Department of Natural Resources.

"We'd like to maintain a modicum of the dune line, but we're waiting for the corps and the park service to get started," Loran said.

Congress has authorized the plan, and Maryland senators Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, as well as Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who represents the Eastern Shore, are seeking $2.5 million to get the restoration project started this year.

The expensive new plan for restoring beach and protective dunes is designed to correct problems that began nearly 70 years ago when a powerful hurricane ripped out a new channel and created the Ocean City inlet. A year later, in 1934, the corps built twin jetties to maintain ocean access from Sinepuxent and Assawoman bays, blocking the natural southward flow of sand that would have replenished Assateague.

Even after restoration, corps engineers and park service officials say the island will need an annual $1 million infusion of sand -- sand that would have reached the island if the jetties had never been built.

Sand will be gathered by a small dredge, then allowed to drift toward Assateague. A team of observers from state and federal agencies will determine each year how much sand will be taken so other areas will not be damaged.

"It might not sound like it, but we have the same management philosophy for the entire island," said Carl Zimmerman, the park service's chief of resource management. "First, we've got to correct the impact of the jetties. Then every year, we have to have a sand resupply that mimics the natural process as it would be without the inlet."

At the Tom's Cove Visitors Center near Chincoteague, the park service will set up four to eight portable cabanas that will serve as bathhouses and restrooms and can be moved out of harm's way within 24 hours when storms threaten the beach.

"It's sort of like big tinker toys," Koenings said. "We get out of the way when a storm comes, then we come back and put them up again. We're not trying to impose something."

The park service sees the portable buildings as a way to provide services for 1.3 million visitors without upsetting the natural balance at the island's southern end or damaging the tourist trade that is essential to the town of Chincoteague.

Designed to use solar or turbine power, the portable structures have allowed the removal of 12 miles of power lines and utility poles.

"It's so obvious, we should have done it years ago," Koenings said. "We have a big storm and we're back within a week. We're back in business."

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