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Suffolk Closeup: On the beach

“Incrementally we are walling off the coast with bulkheads and rock revetments,” says Kevin McAllister of this area’s shoreline picture. This “prevents nature from maintaining a coastline that can absorb storm energy and deal with storms,” says the founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20.

The violent visit here this month of Isaias, a demonstration of storms coming earlier and with more severity and frequency because of climate change heating waters on which they feed, makes understanding how best to approach the shoreline yet more important. 

Pioneering coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey and his associate Katherine Dixon write: “What has become apparent after a century of shoreline hardening” is that “hard stabilization structures” might “modestly” protect some buildings “but sooner or later” will destroy the beach on which they are placed. “The coastal scientist understands that a beach,” they say, must undergo “natural movements in response to a rising sea level and the forces of weather.” By trying to freeze shoreline movement in seeking to protect structures on a beach you lose the beach.

I first started doing journalism on coastal issues in 1962, focusing on Robert Moses’s scheme to construct a four-lane highway the length of Fire Island to, he said, “anchor the beach.” His plan came in conjunction with the then U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Fire Island to Montauk Point project to build up to 50 fingers of rocks —“groins” — along Long Island’s south shore and dump massive amounts of sand. Moses’ road was stopped by creation of the Fire Island National Seashore.

Several years later came the Army Corps’ construction of groins (at up to $1 million in taxpayer dollars per groin) along the Westhampton oceanfront. It was a coastal version of “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul.” The groins caught sand moving in the ocean’s east-to-west littoral drift, but deprived the western portion of the barrier beach of that sand. The result: an ocean breakthrough, 190 houses destroyed or made uninhabitable and an $80 million (in taxpayer money) settlement.

Disregard of coastal consequences has gone on and on. In 2015, $8.9 million in public money was spent to put 14,200 jumbo “geotextile” sandbags on the beach in Montauk to mainly try to protect 10 or so motels, and also condos and other oceanfront structures. All Suffolk County taxpayers are paying for the “maintenance” — at a cost of $1 million a year in some years — of this 3,100-foot line of sandbags. They have been ravaged and uncovered by storms. And with the shore’s primary dune eliminated for the motels and other structures, the beach’s ability to withstand storms and rebuild itself through natural coastal processes does not exist.

Beyond Montauk, Suffolk County government is today pushing for what Mr. McAllister describes as “shoreline hardening” — bulkheading — at Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. The Nissequoque Village board has approved letting coastal homeowners build seawalls “that will impact the movement of sand to two public beaches,” he says. In Mastic Beach, the Army Corps first proposed a “road-dike” and has now dropped that for what Mr. McAllister calls the “donut plan” — having “ring walls” encircle 93 structures.

There’s some good news. The Army Corps’ Fire Island to Montauk Point project has been “reformulated” over the decades and no longer is there a provision for groins. Indeed, the latest plan would remove some existing ones.

And, there is a stipulation for “sand bypassing” at Fire Island, Moriches and Shinnecock Inlets. When I began writing about coastal issues, I learned that in California “sand bypass mechanisms” were placed in front of inlets allowing sand that otherwise would be sucked into them and deposited in bays, to keep flowing along coastlines adding to beaches. I crusaded for that here, but the Army Corps wasn’t interested. It took nearly 60 years, but the Corps now supports it.

Meanwhile, another federal government agency, the U.S. General Accountability Office, has just come out with a report concluding that “relocation due to climate change will be unavoidable in some coastal areas.” The report is titled: “Climate Change: A Climate Migration Pilot Program Could Enhance the Nation’s Resilience and Reduce Federal Fiscal Exposure.” It details the stories of four coastal areas “that have considered relocation: Newtok, Alaska; Santa Rosa, Calif.; Isle de Jean Charles, La.; and Smith Island, Md.”

It says “many more communities will need to consider relocating in coming decades,” and that “the preemptive movement of people and property away from areas experiencing severe impacts is one way to improve climate resilience.”

Let’s fight climate change by ending the burning of fossil fuel that is its main cause. And for the most vulnerable, untenable shoreline areas, we must consider government-supported relocation.