Columns

Suffolk Closeup: A stupid ‘solution’ to beach erosion

With the Fire Island to Montauk Point Project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to be restarted in 2023 — what Kevin McAllister, president of Defend H20, describes as dumping sand along the 83 miles of the Suffolk County oceanfront — it would be instructive to consider the situation in another region.

I began writing about the Army’s FIMP (Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point Project) plan when I started as a reporter in Suffolk in 1962. What was a new scheme then also involved sand-dumping. But a key feature involved the construction of up to 50 “groins,” or piles of rocks, placed out into the ocean.

But this turned out to be disastrous. Between 1965 and 1970, 15 groins were placed along the Westhampton Beach shoreline. What the Army didn’t recognize was how the jetty-like structures would disrupt the “littoral drift” of sand moving east to west in the ocean and leave the coast to the west sand-starved. Beach houses were lost. There was a lawsuit and an $80 million settlement. Indeed, part of what’s to be a restarted FIMP scheme involves removal of two groins built in the sea off Ocean Beach on Fire Island to,  “allow sand to follow” the littoral drift, the Army said.

The restarted FIMP plan also offers “sand bypassing” at the Fire Island, Moriches and Shinnecock inlets to maintain what the Army now recognizes and terms the “littoral transport of sediment” of sand, sand that would otherwise be sucked into those inlets. It also provides for the “elevation,” as the Army calls it, of 3,675 structures, “floodproofing” of 650, and acquisition of 14.”

But mainly it’s, as Mr. McAllister calls it, a “sand plan,”  or just dumping sand along the oceanfront. The Army and other proponents of coastal engineering call this “re-nourishment” or “replenishment,” words suggesting a parallel to how living organisms get nourished or replenished. To say “dump” suggests a sand being deposited and then being washed away by storms.

The price of the restarted FIMP project, according to a press release from Congressmen Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Andrew Garbarino (R-Massapequa Park), “from start to finish, will total more than $3 billion.” The “initial” cost, “more than $1.5 billion,” would be paid by federal funding. But then regular subsequent sand dumping would be paid through a split between the U.S. and a “local” obligation paid by towns where further dumping happens, and New York State and Suffolk County. So all taxpayers will pay for the sand dumping, including Shelter Islanders.

In New Jersey earlier this year, “A coalition of environmentalists, waterfront access advocates and surf fishermen gathered on the Jersey Shore … to denounce beach replenishment as an exercise in futility that destroys natural ecosystems and subsidizes wealthy beachfront homeowners at taxpayers’ expense,” as NJ Advance Media began an article in October.

It quoted Taylor McFarland, acting director of Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, saying, “We have continued to watch failed beach replenishment projects pump millions of dollars of sand on our beaches that just wash away in the next storm.”

New Jersey already draws from a Realty Transfer Tax “devoted to the state Shore Protection Fund … The fund finances the state portion of replenishment projects which replace sand washed away gradually or by storms,” noted NJ Advance Media.

The New Jersey coalition declared its opposition to increasing the amount of money raised by the Realty Transfer Tax for the Shore Protection Fund. “The coalition cited findings by the Program for Studies of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University that beach replenishment projects in New Jersey had cost taxpayers $1,542,879,751 during the years 1989 to 2018,” said the article.

“Beach replenishment has killed off our coastal ecosystem,” Jim Bourne of the Asbury Park Fishing Club was quoted as saying. “Any recovery made by mother nature is only destroyed by more sand.”

The article reported: “Rather than using beach replenishment to protect the shoreline, coalition members say policymakers and coastal engineers should cultivate so-called ‘living shorelines’ comprised of natural materials and native vegetation.”

Mr. McAllister, of the Sag Harbor-based Defend H20 says: “I’m glad to see New Jersey environmental and fisher groups call out perpetual sand replenishment as an unsustainable approach to climate change adaption.” He cited the “many millions” that will be required as the “local” share for “each sand replenishment installation” under the FIMP plan. “What are the real costs to the public-at-large because of climate action complacency and political expedience” as exemplified by ‘perpetual’ sand replenishment? As New Jersey is demonstrating, public discourse directing attention to the environmental pitfalls of perpetual sand replenishment is critical thinking.” There needs to be a “raising” of “public awareness to help strengthen climate change adaption — real adaption,” he said. “Now is the time for Long Island to have its awakening. Choices must be made.”