Shifting sands

August 17, 2002

TO STROLL TOWARD the northernmost tip of Assateague Island is to approach an unusually stark and instructive dividing line.

There, the Ocean City Inlet -- a 200-foot-wide path of powerful sea -- firmly separates a beach on steroids from the virtually undeveloped barrier island. To the north loom the resort city's signature Ferris wheel, its parade of beach-fry stands and its seemingly endless succession of high-rises. To the south, well into Virginia, are some 35 miles of open sand, waving seagrass and wild ponies, a beach often considered among the nation's very finest.

That doesn't mean Assateague's untouched.

Saved from potential development by the creation of state and federal parks in the 1960s, the island now receives about a million day-trippers and campers a year via the bridge from Maryland's mainland. Last weekend, "mobile sports fishermen" held their annual gathering there, their elaborate four-wheel-drive rigs neatly lined along the surf as far as the eye could see. There's been political tussling over whether personal watercraft should be tolerated, and nudists have hit on a certain section of beach. And every now and then, Assateague beachwalkers are thrust back to reality by such detritus as washed-up tires from one of Ocean City's faux offshore reefs or floating Mylar "Happy Birthday" balloons, inflated reminders of the reveries to the north.

But Ocean City's most serious effect on Assateague has been more insidious: a withering over the last 70 years of the island's sands, to the point where if a strong enough storm rolls through, several miles of its northern end are now in danger of disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean or of being severed from the rest of the island by a new ocean inlet.

The offenders are the long jetties built to stabilize the Ocean City Inlet after it was cut by a 1933 hurricane, cleaving the then-tiny beach settlement from Assateague and handing it the tremendous windfall of direct ocean access from coastal bays. Problem is, these jetties interrupted the north-to-south flow of ocean sand along the coast, diverting back out into the ocean over the last seven decades an estimated 11 million cubic yards of sand that nature would have turned into Assateague beach and dunes.

Barrier islands like Assateague naturally erode and drift coastward; they're given sustenance from a constant infusion of new sand. Starving the island has led to a doubling of its pre-1930s westward pace of one to three meters a year, cut at least 100 feet off the width on the island's northern beaches and in spots almost entirely flattened its dunes.

Last week, after years of deliberation, a projected $65-million, 25-year effort to break this unnatural cycle, replace some of the island's lost sand and diminish the threat to its north end finally got under way. Between now and the end of the year, about 10 percent of the sand diverted over the decades -- enough to fill 180,000 dump trucks -- will be dredged from three miles out in the Atlantic and pumped onto about five miles of Assateague's northern beaches.

Then more sand -- an amount equal to that diverted annually by the inlet jetties -- will be dredged each year and released just off the island's beaches so that it can drift naturally ashore. Appropriately, this sand will be taken from in and around the inlet, so it's sand that would have ended up on Assateague.

If all this works, the age-old forces of wind and water are expected for the first time in 70 years to have enough new raw material to sustain Assateague -- in what is hoped will be the final chapter of a prolonged lesson in the high costs of throwing nature for a loop.

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