Sands of Del. slipping away

Rebuilding: The state and the Army Corps of Engineers are ready to wage a $22 million battle with nature over beach erosion at one resort

July 03, 2000|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

SOUTH BETHANY BEACH, Del. - Standing on the deck of his rented stilt house, looking out on the fastest-eroding beach in the second-fastest-eroding state in the nation, vacationer Matthew Slifko has a question:

"What are the state and the Corps of Engineers going to do about it?"

The state of Delaware and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' $22 million answer: They plan to build a 16-foot-high artificial dune - with a 150-foot-wide swath of sand behind it - along a two-mile stretch of shoreline.

Faced with beach erosion rates of three to four feet a year - second only to the Texas Gulf Coast's losses, according to a new federal study - Delaware is preparing to get into the beach rebuilding business in a big way.

The Bethany Beach-South Bethany dune plan is the most elaborate of six new federal beach-rebuilding projects on the drawing board, covering about nine miles' worth of Delaware bay - and oceanfront shoreline between Rehoboth Beach and Fenwick Island. The initial costs of all the projects will total at least $32 million, state officials say.

Delaware is moving forward at a time when some states are backing away from beach rebuilding, seeing it as a losing battle against nature. And environmentalists have some questions.

"Where is the money and the sand going to come from?" wondered Sierra Club activist Mike D'Amico, director of the conservation group's Wild Atlantic program based in Lewes.

D'Amico and others say the South Bethany Beach dune and other beach renourishment projects are putting sea life at risk, vainly attempting to overcome nature's laws, and wasting taxpayers' money.

"Instead of grains of sand we might as well pump dollar bills onto the beaches," D'Amico said. "At least that way we could see where our money is going."

For years, the Delaware beach resorts have settled for small beach-building projects, piggybacked onto Ocean City's much more extensive sand-pumping program in Maryland. But now Delaware resource managers say they have no choice but to act on the same large scale as Ocean City has done - to protect their slim ribbon of coastal real estate, in spite of the costs, because the vanishing beaches are vital to the state's tourism industry.

"If we were kings and could do whatever we wanted, and if we had the power to go back and change what has occurred in the past, we probably would not have allowed construction so close to the beach," said Robert Henry of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, the Corps' partner on the projects.

"But we don't have the power to go in and bulldoze everybody's house down for nothing and tell them to get out of there. And we feel this is the most beneficial way to go about protecting what's already there."

The proposed projects - all but one of which have won congressional approval - are far more ambitious than anything the state has done. Experts say that over their 50-year life span, beach renourishment projects typically cost three times the initial construction costs, because the beaches keep on eroding and need regular replenishing with fresh sand.

"I think over the long term it's not going to hold up," Stephen Leatherman, a former University of Maryland professor known as "Dr. Beach" and now director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, said of the program. "It's the problem of who profits and who pays? That's the thing that sticks in everybody's throat.

"The ultimate costs of these projects are getting onto people's radar screens, and I don't see Congress over the long term paying these big bills. ... This is big. They're getting into real money now."

Leatherman is the lead author of a new study for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which found that nationwide, erosion threatens to wash away 87,000 homes over the next 60 years.

Delaware's erosion problem is "a matter of geologic destiny," Leatherman said. Ocean currents carry its sand north to New Jersey and south to Maryland. The agency report singles out 67 homes along South Bethany Beach's Ocean Drive as especially likely to tumble into the sea without new protection.

"South Bethany doesn't have a dune," said former town mayor Joe Schaefer. "Years ago when the town was laid out, the beachfront houses were more or less on top of the dune, and since that time the beach has retreated. ... The beachfront road is in effect our dune."

To protect the houses, the state plans to build an artificial dune and pile sand behind it. When finished, the dune will jut about nine feet taller than the new beach, with beach grasses to hold it in place and crossovers for access to the water, Henry said. There's no estimated completion date for the project, which is in the planning stages, he said.

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