Work on beach reconstruction in Bethany Beach neared completion of the initial construction phase mid-week, as workers from Weeks Marine approached Cedarwood Street at the town’s south end with efforts to widen the beach and build a new 16-foot-tall dune.
As of Wednesday morning, the new beach ended just two houses from the Cedarwood beach crossover, with bulldozers compacting the new dunes and dredges continuing to bring sand from 2.5 miles offshore to rebuild the shoreline to a level most who live in and visit the town cannot recall seeing.
Secretary John Hughes of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) said that loads of roughly 2,000 cubic yards of sand from the two Weeks Marine dredges were being used to replenish about 10 linear feet of beach per load.
Since repair of one of the two dredges being used on the project, the two boats have been alternating trips back and forth between the offshore dredge site and a near-shore location where the dredged sand is pumped in a slurry of sand and seawater to the beach. It is then moved by several large bulldozers, which shape the dune, compact it and smooth the new, wider beach in front of it.
“It’s moved along unbelievable quickly,” said Bethany Mayor Carol Olmstead on Friday, Oct. 19, as she met with Hughes, DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Program Administrator Tony Pratt and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who had come to view work on the project for which he and the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation have lobbied for years.
The bulldozers in the last week have also constructed a level ramp leading from the existing beach crossover at Wellington Parkway to the top of the new dune, providing temporary access to workers and a vantage point for those watching the replenishment process.
Pratt and Hughes said Oct. 19 that they had been surprised to see the previous unplanned walkway but that it would be considered a bonus in the project and would likely be further engineered and undergo additional construction to make it a permanent feature.
Another benefit of the project, beyond added storm protection and room for beachgoers, may be new recreational opportunities, Hughes told Carper last Friday.
“They’re playing softball in Rehoboth and Dewey, at the back of the beach,” he said. “They’re playing Frisbee on the beach.” Hughes said the new, wider beaches had led some beach towns to reconsider previous bans on such games, which have been considered hazardous with the close quarters on their erosion-plagued predecessors.
Hughes said metal grids on the dredging and shoreline pipe systems have been doing their jobs in weeding out larger debris from the borrow site known to be contaminated with old munitions from the one-time over-sea artillery range off York Beach in South Bethany.
“They’re getting all the shells the first time,” he said, saying that bits of shells ranging in caliber from 30 to 50 were being found and removed. “These are just bullets, with no powder,” he emphasized, saying that while they were being removed by crews as they were discovered they were essentially harmless.
A bucket of such munitions sits just outside the shed on the beach that houses operations control for the project. Hughes dug through the bucket last Friday, offering Carper a look at the variety of bullets and fragments of other munitions debris that had been collected recently.
Holding up one of the largest intact bullets for examination, Hughes emphasized they were safe and took the found object home.
Pratt told Carper that no game fish or other large animals had been discovered in the system during the dredging so far, just a few bits of smaller fin-fish that had apparently been picked up during the dredging – one every three days or so, he said.
That hasn’t stopped juvenile herring gulls from gathering gluttonously at the outfall of the beachside pipe end, where they have learned to find a tasty meal of sea snails and other small creatures as soon as the pipe begins pumping clear seawater in preparation for a new batch of the sand/water slurry flowing onto the beach.
Debate over the 16-foot dune height continued again this week, as state and local officials await word from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as to whether the dune can be lowered by 2 feet and still provide optimal storm protection.
Hughes said Oct. 19 that while some settlement of the dunes had been observed, he had met with Corps officials in the last week and asked them a basic question: “Can we lower the height a couple of feet and not endanger the protection factor of the whole beach?” he repeated to Carper. “They’re working on it,” he said.
If the go-ahead on the desired height reduction does come after Corps officials review their storm models for its impact on storm protection, Hughes reiterated this week that DNREC crews and equipment will be solely responsible for doing to work to decrease the dune height.
“We’ll do it on our nickel, not yours,” he told Olmstead on Friday.
DNREC will also be in charge of maintaining the walkways across the dunes that will be constructed as the project moves forward. Hughes said a compacted material with the strength of concrete but the consistency of sand would be used to create the dune crossings, the same as in Fenwick Island. Wooden segments will connect the boardwalk to the top of the dune, as in Rehoboth Beach. Property owners with beachfront property have made individual arrangements with DNREC for access across the dune, Pratt said.
One suggestion for improving the sea view has been benches placed atop the dunes. Hughes warned Olmstead that if DNREC approves the placement of benches atop the finished dunes — as they did in Fenwick Island — the town will be responsible for maintaining the benches and bringing them out of harm’s way in inclement weather.
He said DNREC is in the process of trying to get regulations change to formally allow the benches on the dunes, instead of making an exception to existing rules, as they did in Fenwick.
Hughes also noted that any sand garnered from dune height reduction would be used within the beach, filling in behind the toe of the dune and any gullies below the boardwalk.
He reiterated last Friday that DNREC supports the reduction, provided there is no “substantial difference” in the storm protection the shorter dune will provide to the town, its people, property and infrastructure.
“Some have said they don’t want it reduced if there’s any difference,” Olmstead pointed out, while acknowledging that the town is still receiving calls from people on both sides of the dune height debate.
“Most of the people who are complaining don’t live here,” Olmstead emphasized.
Pratt said last Friday that the reaction has varied depending on how long people have lived in or visited the town.
“It depends on whether or not they remember the old view,” he said, pointing out that those who remember the beach prior to the last decade of erosion are most likely to welcome the reconstructed beach.
He said that those who witnessed the destruction to beach, boardwalk and property from the 1998 nor’easter that inflicted substantial damage along the Delaware shore are particularly likely to favor enhanced storm protection, even if it’s more difficult to see the ocean from the Bethany Beach boardwalk.
One property owner took advantage of the gathering of officials on the boardwalk Oct. 19, telling them, “I bought a house here and now I’m going to sell it. This is bad.” Olmstead said even that complaint had been mollified by some explanation of the storm protection being provided by the new dune.
The town has printed information sheets describing the storm protection benefit and plans to distribute them on the boardwalk, at locations where informational signs are already in place. Pratt said his office was likewise looking into distributing information on storm protection from the dune. It is a key factor in convincing many in the area of the value of the tall dune, despite its impact on views.
“South Bethany said, ‘If you lower that dune one inch…’” Hughes told Carper, replicating a warning tone. “They don’t want it lowered.”
And, in a step to address some of the concerns about the dune, Pratt said those few beachside property owners without a second-floor deck whose view is being affected by the dune are being given clearance for permission to add a second-floor deck. “Call us up and we’ll give you expedited treatment,” he said.
At an ongoing rate of about one block of progress per day, the initial construction work in Bethany Beach is likely to be concluded last this week or early next week. From there, the project will proceed to construction of walkways and dune fencing.
Pratt said last Friday that he hoped to wait until late March or early April before dune grass is planted to help stabilize the dune, to maximize the survival of new, dormant plants that might be threatened by the winds of a nor’easter.
With no verdict yet from the Corps as to whether reduction of the dune height will be permitted, the timetable on the construction of formal dune crossings remained unclear this week. Pratt has said he is looking into whether the height reduction could easily be made after the crossings were finished.
The start of construction on the South Bethany section of the project is still anticipated to begin in mid- to late November.