Dune height causing concern

Area residents and interested visitors have taken to gathering along Bethany Beach’s boardwalk over the last week, to watch the progress of the town’s beach reconstruction project. They’ve lined the railing at the eastern edge of the boardwalk to watch as the first portions of some 3.2 million cubic yards of sand are pumped onto the beach to create new dunes and a wider shoreline.

But some of those replenishment watchers have become concerned with what they see — or rather what they don’t see: namely, the ocean.

“Why on earth does someone walk the boardwalk if not to watch the waves coming to the shore and to feel the sheer vastness of the ocean?” Mary V. Schneider of Bethany Beach wrote to the Coastal Point this week.

“When you consider that on the top of the dune there will hopefully be a healthy stand of protective dune grass, possibly a foot tall, it will be difficult for the average-height person to see over the 4-foot differential between the boardwalk and the vegetated dune,” wrote Bethany’s John J. Stamm. “And those of us that enjoy sitting on the benches watching the ocean, the bathers, surfers, sun worshippers and fishermen will be completely shut off. You won’t even be able to see the ocean when sitting on the benches, only the side of a grassy sand dune.”

Stamm and Schneider were two of many who complained this week that the new 16-foot-tall dunes in front of the boardwalk make it nearly impossible for one to stroll the boardwalk and also take in the wide watery vista they’re so used to seeing.

“I have the same concern myself,” DNREC Shoreline and Waterway Management Program Administrator Tony Pratt admitted to the Coastal Point mid-week. “I’ve been talking to the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers), and right now I’m waiting for a response from the guy who has the answer, to see whether the dune can be altered at all.”

Pratt said Bethany Beach Mayor Carol Olmstead has been in touch with him and others involved in overseeing the project, concerned about the same issue.

Still, Pratt said the height should be considered, in at least one way, a positive for the town.

“You have to remember that the dune height is a product of security,” he said. “It has been determined so that we don’t have — I hate to make a reference to New Orleans and Katrina — but we hear about levy tops that weren’t high enough there. It would be an awful shame to have a nor’easter come in, overtop the dunes and crush the boardwalk.”

Pratt said the plan for the reconstructed beach has not changed from its initial concept. The dune was planned to be 2 feet higher than the one in Rehoboth Beach, where beach reconstruction took place two years ago and a walk or look over the small bump in the landscape has become accepted as the norm. And Bethany’s dune was also planned with the town’s taller boardwalk in mind.

“When we were offered this height for the dune, the city and DNREC looked at this and knew the difference between the dune and the boardwalk height,” Pratt said.

There was one miscalculation, though. “We were told that the boardwalk was 13 feet above the beach, and it turns out that it is 12 feet.”

Pratt said the 4-foot difference in height between the reality of the boardwalk and the planned 16-foot-tall dune is making a big visual impact as the project gets under way.

“It’s a 4-foot difference,” he said. “If you’re only 5 feet or 5.5 tall, you’re not seeing a lot over top of that. It’s certainly an issue,” he said.

The impact of that difference could potentially be reduced as work proceeds to complete the dune construction, install walkways, crossovers, dune grass and dune fencing, but Pratt said he was unable to predict exactly what degree of settlement might be expected in the newly placed sand.

“There will be some more settlement,” he said. “But I can’t tell you how much you can expect it to settle. The dunes were built by bulldozers and they’ve been run over by bulldozers, so there has been some compaction already.”

Pratt said a more final shape and height for the dune should be revealed over the next month or two, especially if the area receives substantial rain, which would help the settlement process.

“But I’m not sure if that’s going to give us 1 inch or 8 inches more reveal,” he said. “I don’t think we will see 2 to 3 feet of compaction. Though, some beaches we’ve built in the past have had 2 to 3 feet of compaction.”

Pratt said he didn’t want to hazard a guess as to whether eventual compaction would result in the kind of reduced height some are now saying they wish the new dune had. He said a combination of factors would be involved, leading to unpredictability in the final result.

Further, Pratt said much of the concern about the dune height was simply a matter of having to adapt to change.

“It’s so much of a shock because it’s such a change from what we had before,” he said, acknowledging that a similar project in Atlantic City, N.J., had found itself dealing with the same issue, as it went from an elevated boardwalk overlooking a narrow beach to a tall dune that reached above the floor height of that boardwalk.

“Be careful what you wish for, you may get it,” Stamm reminded Coastal Point readers this week.

The phenomenon may be roughly equivalent to buyer’s remorse on a grand scale, but Pratt said he would still be working with Corps officials in the coming days and weeks to see if accommodations might be made to make the new dune just a little less imposing from the Bethany Beach boardwalk.

Debris from expended munitions found

The Corps and DNREC announced last Friday that, in the course of sand pumping operations at Bethany Beach, a small amount of debris from expended munitions had been found on the beach near the dredge pipe outlet.

The debris, officials said, was totally inert and poses no hazard to the public. Examples include empty .50 caliber cartridge casings and projectiles and a variety of brass and copper fragments.

This discovery is not at all unexpected, officials emphasized. The dredging contractor is using grids both on the dredge intake and on the outlet pipe to ensure that nothing exceeding 1.25 inches in diameter reaches the beach.

“These grids have proven to be very successful in screening out potentially hazardous ordnance, so that only harmless debris gets through. Then, after each pumpout, the basket and its immediate area will be searched to remove any visible debris,” they noted.

Pratt said Tuesday that two bits of debris that were “of concern” had been found, one of which had been removed by the bomb squad as a precaution.

“Nothing else like that has been found,” Pratt said of operations since the finding of those two pieces. “There is small stuff still coming through,” he added.

Pratt said locating and identifying such debris was the main reason that surveying the beach with a metal detector had become part of the standard procedure in building a new beach.

“That’s one of the reasons the Corps goes back behind (the work). It has become protocol,” he said. “Part of the protocol is that the Corps has to produce survey data to show the beach has been properly constructed, and they’re doing metal detection work as part of those surveys.”

Pratt said the protocol had become the norm after reconstruction of the beach at Long Beach Island, N.J., where similar munitions finds had meant the Corps decided to send out a worker with a particularly expensive and sensitive metal detector to make sure nothing unsafe had gotten onto the beach. That is now being done in Bethany, too. But even the low-tech methods have been benefiting the project, he said.

“The screens have worked the way they’re supposed to,” he noted of the two-phase 1.25-inch diameter screening that keeps larger debris from entering the dredging system and then from being deposited on the beach if it somehow manages to make it through the first screen.

Beach access to be restored in coming days

The post-construction checks are also key in getting the reconstructed portions of the beach reopened to beachgoers, Pratt said. And they’re all that kept those wanting to enjoy the new wider beach from doing just that mid-week, as work on the project moved north from the completed section running from Hollywood Street to Central Avenue, where work was under way Tuesday.

“They’re doing that now,” Pratt said Tuesday of the surveys and the completed segment of beach. “We’re hopeful that within a couple days they’ll be able to reopen that part.”

Pratt said he had asked town officials to consider creating a temporary demarcated walkway of yellow caution tape that would channel people off the top steps of the boardwalk at the top of the dune, over the dune, and allow them to get to the other side.

“We don’t want people just running all over the dune,” he said, stressing that foot traffic on the dune could severely damage the work that has been done. Eventually, dune fencing and dune grass will help protect the dune from both beachgoers and nature’s erosive abilities. Compacted walkways, contained by more fencing, will keep beachgoers off the dune faces. But those features are likely still months away, at best.

Pratt said the beach reconstruction work in Bethany Beach has been proceeding at the pace of roughly one block per day, but that doesn’t necessarily automatically translate into a time table for the project as a whole.

“If we have nothing but great weather, as we’ve had these first nine days, they can pump around the clock and they’ll finish about a block a day,” he said. “But if we get a nor’easter, they could sit down for four days and do nothing. The same is true of any mechanical breakdown,” he warned.

“They’re making great progress,” Pratt said, though, cautioning that those eager to see the project completed and for it to begin in South Bethany would have to be a little patient. “We’ll have to wait and see on South Bethany. It will be dependent on the weather,” he said. “They’re thinking that probably in November or December they’ll be in South Bethany somewhere.”

The project currently under way involves placement of approximately 3.2 million cubic yards of sand to create a beach-and-dune system along 2.8 miles of oceanfront, from the northern end of Bethany Beach to the Fenwick Island State Park. The sand is being pumped in from an offshore borrow area approximately 2.5 miles east of South Bethany, known as Borrow Site E.

The Army Corps is managing initial construction and providing 65 percent of the $19.8 million cost, while the DNREC is providing the balance of funds as the non-federal sponsor.

The prime contractor on the project is Weeks Marine Inc. of Covington, La.