Area beaches soon to be reborn

A Weeks Marine hopper dredge is due to arrive off the coast of South Bethany late this week, ready to begin the work of pumping sand from the seabed at Hens and Chickens Shoals — considered one of the area’s best borrow sites for beach replenishment — onto Bethany Beach’s erosion-narrowed shore.

reborn: Bethany Beach as it looks today. Above, what the same scene may look like after replenishment.Coastal Point • RUSLANA LAMBERT
Bethany Beach as it looks today. Above, what the same scene may look like after replenishment.

The project is labeled “beach reconstruction” because it’s more than just replenishing lost sand: it involves the re-creation of the wide beach and planted dunes that could protect property in Bethany and South Bethany for decades and even centuries to come.

The change will be dramatic enough that many who see the towns’ beaches every day may have a hard time envisioning what they will look like once the project is complete, though visitors to Rehoboth Beach or Fenwick Island may get a taste of what is to come from the completed beach reconstruction projects there.

Rehoboth’s reconstructed beach is roughly equivalent to what is planned for Bethany, since both share the feature of a central boardwalk elevated above the old, flat beach. Fenwick Island’s project is likewise similar to what will happen in South Bethany, with beachfront homes that almost overtopped the dunes — completely, in the case of South Bethany — being tucked in behind newly reconstructed dunes more than a dozen feet high.

Tony Pratt, program administrator for the Shoreline and Waterway Management Section of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), recently described to the Coastal Point the planned end result of the two projects.

In Bethany, “There will be a dune in front of the boardwalk. And when they come off the boardwalk, they will cross a boardwalk section over the dune,” he said.

“The back toe of the dune will slope down under the boardwalk, with a gap between the boardwalk and the top of the dune,” he noted. “A ramp will connect the boardwalk to the dune and they will walk across to the toe of the dune.”

Crossovers will allow beachgoers access across the approximately 100-foot-wide, 16-foot-high dunes in areas where the boardwalk does not exist, roughly every block. They will simply walk up a sloped path on the back side of the dune and then walk down a similar path down the front of the dune to the gentle slope of the new beach.

Pratt said the front toe of the dune will extend some 75 to 80 feet seaward from the front edge of the boardwalk. Between the front toe of the dune and the mean high water mark for the ocean, about 180 to 200 feet of beach will be constructed.

In South Bethany, Pratt said, beachgoers will head seaward about 30 feet in front of the front edge of most of the beachfront houses before arriving at the back toe of the new dune. Similarly to the non-boardwalk areas of Bethany, the dunes will run about 100 feet wide from toe to toe and rise to some 16 feet above the surrounding sands.

They will be traversed via 14 crossovers (at North 6th, North 4th, North 2nd, Division, South 1st, South 2nd, South 4th South 5th, South 6th, South 9th, Indian, Jamaica, Kewanee and south of Logan streets), and one Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant crossing at South 3rd Street, which will involve timber construction and then snake along the dune to provide a lesser slope for handicapped pedestrians and those in wheelchairs.

According to planning documents, the seaward edge of the new dune will actually be east of where surveyors marked the water line in South Bethany at the time of their survey. The new beach will then run about 200 feet outward, gradually sloping down to the mean high water line.

All in all, South Bethany’s beachgoers — and beachfront property owners — will have about 330 feet to traverse from the front decks of beachfront homes to where their toes will get wet at high tide.

It will be a stark change in a town where many have gotten used to wet towels as high tide approaches and to seeing the most extreme tides scour the beach underneath the beachfront homes, even threatening stairway accesses, parking areas and Ocean Drive.

Entire coastline expected to benefit

In both towns, the new dunes and expanded beaches will be transitioned into non-reconstructed areas to the north and/or south.

A gentle transition will take place at the non-replenished beach at the private Sussex Shores community to Bethany’s north. To the south, Sea Colony and Middlesex Beach both are currently planning their own reconstruction projects to match the two public projects, so there the beach should merely stretch in its replenished form from one section to the next.

In South Bethany, the reconstructed beach will need to be transitioned to meet the natural dunes and unreplenished beach in Fenwick Island State Park’s northern reaches.

Pratt said the dune will be sloped back into the existing natural dune, running at about a 45 degree angle to the main body of the reconstructed dune. In front of the new dune, the beach will begin to turn, at a distance of about 200 feet in front of the dune — the same width as the state beach in front of its dune — and will mirror the dune’s transition by running at close to a 45 degree angle back into native beach.

The transition should run about 1,000 feet and will, Pratt said, blend in with the state beach, providing additional room on the beach even for those who visit only the shoreline outside of town limits.

That expansion is the likely eventual result from the reconstruction projects up and down Delaware’s coast, Pratt emphasized.

“We’ve seen in both Rehoboth and Dewey that there’s been a lot of bleeding out that fills both north and south of the projects,” Pratt said. In fact, “In Indian Beach, south of the Rehoboth taper section, the beach got even wider than the taper section,” he noted.

“There is usually a positive effect both north and south of where the tapers are,” Pratt added.

It bears out the theory that Pratt has been pushing to federal officials for years: that replenishment is not a local solution to spots of severe erosion but rather a process that works on a regional basis. He has called upon officials in Maryland and Virginia to join with him to deal with replenishment issues on a regional front, since projects in all three states can bring benefits to their neighbors.

Indeed, the proof of that has long been shown at the southern end of unincorporated Fenwick Island, where the state beach has seen the benefit of the regular replenishment efforts made to neighboring Ocean City’s beach via Maryland’s coffers and federal funding designated for that state.

Likewise, even though some of the area’s private beachfront communities have opted not to replenish their shores, they — and the state park’s unreplenished beaches — are expected to eventually benefit to some degree from the Bethany Beach and South Bethany project as the newly pumped sand enters the wider ocean system and is washed north and south, on and off beaches up and down the coast.

Long-term beach protection a major goal

That coast-long beach widening isn’t the only thing about the newly reconstructed beach that will be getting bigger over time, and Pratt said that’s of benefit to the long-term health of the beach and the protection it will provide to the Delaware costal towns.

“What most people don’t realize is that dunes grow,” he said. “Storms will cause sand to accumulate at the fence line, and letting it accumulate across the whole base is preferred. The grass will grow right up through it. The grass will get taller, and it will increase height of the dune itself.”

Dune grass and fencing is one of the key components of the project, meant to cement the new dunes in place and allow them to grow as Pratt described. The grass is expected to be planted in late winter or early spring, while the dune fencing will come in the latter stages of the major construction phase of the project, after bulldozers have finished moving around sand to create the new dunes and beach access paths.

Once the grass has gotten established and the fencing is in place, the resulting dune structure is expected to help protect properties and infrastructure in both towns from the area’s notorious nor’easters, as well as any hurricanes that might eventually find their way to Delaware’s shore.

“We know that the beach and the dune are sacrificial elements,” Pratt explained. “We’d rather see damage to beach and dunes than houses. And the sand we put down is to some degree sacrificial.”

“This is so much bigger than anything we’ve done before,” he emphasized. “Short of a Katrina, I would expect that we would not see any (sea) water in the streets of Bethany and South Bethany as long as these beaches are maintained.”

That maintenance is expected to come in the form of smaller, periodic replenishment projects every few years.

“The (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers) schedule is to make improvements to Rehoboth and Dewey on a three-year maintenance cycle,” Pratt said, adding that the same kind of cycle was expected to be used for Bethany and South Bethany, while Fenwick Island’s reconstructed beach is on a four- or five-year schedule. That means that state, local and federal officials are already gearing up to garner funding for maintenance replenishment in those two northern towns, where projects were completed in 2005.

“Sens. (Joe) Biden and (Tom) Carper have had a lot of success for funding in the ’08 spending bills,” Pratt noted. “They’ve lined up $4 or $5 million on the Senate side. We’re not sure whether that, with the state money we have available, is sufficient to do the maintenance up there.”

“They’re still working on that,” he emphasized, mentioning the traditionally more hostile attitude of the U.S. House of Representatives to beach replenishment funding. “The House hasn’t voted yet. It will have to go to a floor vote in the Senate, then to conference,” where Senate and House funding levels are reconciled. “But we are looking at funding for ’08.”

“We always ask for a lot less with renourishment,” Pratt noted, citing the significantly lesser size of such projects when compared to the big beach reconstruction projects that have already taken place up and down Delaware’s coast and which are essentially “quick housekeeping” to the costly major reconstruction projects they maintain.

Despite the plans for maintenance, Pratt said he was very happy with the results of Delaware’s completed beach reconstruction projects.

“Fenwick has done very well, and Dewey and Rehoboth have done very well, too,” he said. “You’d be hard pressed to look at Dewey and Rehoboth and say that it needs (replenishment). But our surveys will likely indicate we’ve had a certain volume loss.”

Pratt said state officials are always at some stage in the process of planning for replenishment, just in case it should be needed by the time funding becomes available.

“We don’t know what this winter is going to do to this beach. It could be that by the time we get the funding into our hands, we’re going to need it. That’s why we’re ramping up for it now,” he explained.

Improved protection not a license to build

Though the reconstructed beaches are expected to provide protection to beachfront homes that could potentially weather a 100-year storm, Pratt said that won’t mean any changes from a DNREC push to restrict building at the shoreline, including a recently recommended retreat of the state’s building line, beyond which no property can be built or, in many cases, reconstructed.

Pratt, considered an expert on replenishment and shoreline protection on the national level, said he had recently spoken at a National Academy of Science committee meeting on the subject, addressing whether officials should readjust flood insurance demarcation lines when beaches are renourished.

“Physical construction has an expectation now to last a lot longer than a beach. And with the vagaries of future funding, you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Pratt explained. “If we allowed people to build, and Congress or the state doesn’t provide continued funding, 16 years from now we’d be right back where we started, if the beach was not maintained.”

The Bethany and South Bethany projects, like their predecessors to the north and the south, have been labeled as “50-year” reconstructions, which means that the Corps has agreed that it will maintain the completed beaches at their engineered state for 50 years in the future.

But Pratt emphasized that that promise from the Corps does not amount to a blank check or a cut-and-dry insurance policy, due to the need for legislators to continue to approve budgets that allow for the Corps to actually do the maintenance projects through those 50 years.

“The General Assembly and Congress are not putting aside 50 years of replenishment money,” he said. “We remain vulnerable. So no building standards will be lessened.”

Sand to be same as already on beaches

Though few have objected to them in principle, the beach reconstruction projects in Dewey and Rehoboth Beach have raised some concerns for those awaiting new sand coming onto the beaches of South Bethany and Bethany Beach, as the new shape of the beaches and the quality of the sand in those two projects have been a source of some complaints.

But Pratt said beachgoers in Bethany and South Bethany should not be worried.

“The borrow site for this project is exactly what was used two or three times in the past in Bethany and South Bethany,” he explained. “The sand that is there now is the same sand that they’re going to pump.”

Indeed, when reconstruction took place in Rehoboth and Dewey, taking sand from Hens and Chickens Shoals had temporarily been barred. Officials selected a secondary site to the north that initially caused some concerns with the texture of the sand being too large and more recently has developed with some complaints of minor injuries to swimmers from gravel that was deposited.

“The sand in Dewey and Rehoboth came from east and south of the Indian River Inlet,” Pratt explained, saying that the sand samples shown to them likely hadn’t indicated that there was any significant amount of gravel within the Indian River borrow site. “The Corps had taken a lot of cores in both sites over the years,” he noted.

“We knew that site was an acceptable alternative, since we couldn’t move sand off Hens and Chickens Shoals,” Pratt said. “And most textbooks will tell you that some gravel component is a good thing in replenishment. The sand will stay there longer. As a protection component, it is an admirable element.”

Pratt said the Rehoboth and Dewey sand had appeared entirely suitable for those reasons.

“I don’t think anybody anticipated that a gravel deposit would form at the base of the beach, which seems to be what has happened,” he explained. “In the transition from the beach face where it slopes to a flat bottom, there was a big gravel deposit.”

But Pratt said the situation had improved over the summer. “You don’t see gravel any more. It has worked itself out of the system.”

He said the change back to the preferred borrow site at Hens and Chickens Shoals should eliminate that worry for Bethany and South Bethany’s project.

“The Bethany-South Bethany site, due east of South Bethany is well-graded, well-sorted, medium-grained sand,” he emphasized. “Very little gravel ever shows up in the cores, but that’s not say won’t be any gravel,” he added, stopping short of a promise.

Pratt said he’s pleased that the project is starting in the fall, since that will allow the new beach to settle into its natural state while there are fewer people in the water.

In future installments of the Coastal Point’s continuing coverage of beach reconstruction, look in the coming weeks for more on what Pratt and other beach experts have to say about concerns some have expressed that a new beach shape poses a higher risk to swimmers, and whether it is something beachgoers should be concerned about.