Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cape Cod's disappearing beaches

During the past few years, increasing numbers of homeowners on Cape Cod and in communities along the eastern seaboard have been informed by their insurance companies that their homeowners insurance policies would not be renewed. The reason? The insurance industry has concluded that global warming has already increased the intensity of coastal storms to the point that the risk of insuring many coastal properties is too great. So they're pulling out. Homeowners are forced to seek lenders of last resort and in some cases face as much as a 200 percent increase in their rates.

Recent storms have, in fact, seriously eroded Cape and Island beaches. An April Nor'easter
forced the ocean to flow through the barrier beach that last year formed a land bridge connecting the town of Chatham's South Beach with Monomoy and wiped out entire dunes on North Beach. Town officials seeking permission to dredge for sand to restore their beaches find themselves battling environmentalists, commercial fishers and others who feel this course of action would pose threats to rare species and fish habitats.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for an organized and well-funded effort to block the development of Cape Wind -- the nation's first proposed offshore wind project -- continue to insist that 130 wind turbines (whose operation would help mitigate the source of the region's storm-related problems) pose a greater threat to the Cape's environment and economy than what is unfolding before their very eyes. (GW)

Cape and Island beaches threatened

The Cape's beaches are disappearing faster than ever.

And as ocean waves carry away more and more sand, Cape towns have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of money to protect and restore their greatest asset.

"The way we all remember Cape Cod is disappearing. Soon, it will look like Nahant, all pebbles and no sand," Harwich harbor master Tom Leach said of the beaches lining Nantucket Sound.

Beaches are the foundation of the seasonal economy. According to the Massachusetts Office of Tourism and Travel, 48 percent of the 4.7 million people who annually visit the Cape go to the beach, the highest of the categories surveyed.

In Orleans alone, fees collected for parking and off-road travel permits top $900,000 annually. To protect that revenue stream, the town has earmarked $2 million on its capital plan to purchase an inland parking lot, as their current lot and beach access is threatened by erosion.

Leach said towns are "sand starved." To find sand to save their beaches, towns are taking dredge spoils once dumped at sea and rebuilding eroded shorelines. They are dredging channels deeper to get more sand out of each project, and they are even looking for areas offshore where they might mine large quantities of sand for large-scale projects that promise to temporarily restore beaches.

The expense runs into the millions, but the payback in tourist dollars is huge. In the Delaware area, for instance, beach experts claim that rebuilding beaches was paid for two or three times over in tourist revenues.

"Beaches are truly a part of a community's infrastructure, like roads. ... In many cases, they define the community," said Ted Keon, Chatham coastal resources director. "If they are allowed to decay, there will be a loss."

Keon compared rebuilding beaches to maintaining roads.

"You have to fix the pothole and nourish the beach."

Dredging sand-clogged boating channels is the most cost-effective way to rebuild beaches — at $6.50 a cubic yard.

Trucking in sand can cost as much as $250 a cubic yard. But dredging at the town, county, state and federal level doesn't come close to the need.

Mark Forest, an aide to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass, said President George Bush's latest proposed budget allowed for full dredging of just one of 171 small New England ports. Additional restrictions on how federal dredging resources are used essentially cut out smaller ports, like those on the Cape and Islands, Forest said. Delahunt-sponsored legislation that would ease those restrictions is making progress in the House and Senate, according to Forest.

Harwich budgets $50,000 a year toward channel dredging, enough to gather 7,500 cubic yards of sand. Leach said he has to make that amount stretch to cover four or five projects a year.

"We are way underfunded. We should be moving twice or three times that volume every year," he said.

Beach areas are subject to a complex set of regulations from local, state and federal agencies — provisions protecting plants, marshes, wetlands, coastal banks and dunes, rare and endangered species and fish habitat.

Dredging projects are also squeezed into narrow blocks of time by closures to protect fish.

To address the challenges posed by beach nourishment projects, the state has put together a dredge team that includes representatives of the federal Army Corps of Engineers, state Coastal Zone Management, state Division of Marine Fisheries and National Marine Fisheries Service.

Steve McKenna, Coastal Zone Management's Cape and Islands regional coordinator, said beaches are caught in a classic case of competing interests — fisheries and rare species protection vs. property protection.

Defining fish habitat and the requirements for dredging and renourishing beaches would go a long way to untangling the process, McKenna said.

He believes those answers should be coming from someone at the state level such as Ian Bowles, director of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

"At a higher level, someone has to define what this balance should be," McKenna said.


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