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Peak Sand: Why We Can’t Afford To Restore NJ’s Beaches

Immense quantities of sand along NJ’s coastline were washed away by Sandy, much of which was artificially deposited to maintain stable beaches near beachfront communities. It may not be possible to restore the beaches, because we are running out of sand:

Storm Raises Costs of Shoring Up Coastal Communities - Cordelia Dean via

Though reports are still preliminary, coastal researchers say that when Hurricane Sandy came ashore, it washed enormous quantities of sand off beaches and into the streets — or even all the way across barrier islands into the bays behind them.

But even as these towns clamor for sand, scientists are warning that rising seas will make maintaining artificial beaches prohibitively expensive or simply impossible. Even some advocates of artificial beach nourishment now urge new approaches to the issue, especially in New Jersey.

The practice has long been controversial.

Opponents of beach nourishment argue that undeveloped beaches deal well with storms. Their sands shift; barrier islands may even migrate toward the mainland. But the beach itself survives, because buildings and roads do not pin it down.

By contrast, replenishment projects often wash away far sooner than expected. The critics say the best answer to coastal storms is to move people and buildings away from the water, a tactic some call strategic retreat.

Supporters of these projects counter that beaches are infrastructure — just like roads, bridges and sewer systems — that must be maintained. They say beaches attract tourists and summer residents, conferring immense economic benefits that more than outweigh the costs of the projects. Also, they argue, these beaches absorb storm energy, sparing buildings inland.

New Jersey has embraced this approach with gusto. Stewart C. Farrell, a professor of marine geology at Stockton College of New Jersey, said that since 1985 80 million cubic yards of sand had been applied on 54 of the state’s 97 miles of developed coastline: a truckload of sand for every foot of beach.

Dr. Farrell and his colleagues have calculated that the work cost more than $800 million — before adjusting for inflation.

Typically, the federal government pays 65 percent of the cost; the state and towns share the rest.

By now in New Jersey, most beaches “are engineered dikes,” said Thomas Herrington, a professor of ocean engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, who has been working with the state to assess its coastal protection. About half of its coastal communities have projects still under way, so their beaches are already approved — at least in theory — for topping up with sand as needed.

But even if there is money for that work, engineers must find the sand. Around the nation, that is getting more and more difficult. The problem is particularly acute in New Jersey.

“We know from geological surveys — and New Jersey is a prime example — that offshore sand, high-quality sand, is a highly finite resource,” said S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal scientist with the United States Geological Survey and the University of Hawaii.

Underwater ridges of sand lie offshore, but engineers must go farther and farther (and spend more and more) to find them, Mr. Williams said, adding that eventually “it is not going to be there.”

Mantoloking Bridge in New Jersy

Strategic retreat requires a dramatic shift in our approach to the coast. In recent centuries, people have attempted to build as close to popular beaches as possible, and to try to pin the beaches down along with the property lines. But barrier islands and coastal beaches want to move as waves and storms batter them. 

I don’t have much doubt that there will be demands by those who have lived next to the Atlantic that the beaches must be restored. I think this is a mistake.

Imagine instead if we instituted a new social policy, deciding to treat the first half mile from the ocean as a national park, with no permanent residential buildings. We could still visit the shore, swim, eat clams, and even sleep within the sound of the waves. But this could all be done without the current mania of propping up expensive and inevitably high risk infrastructure of streets, electricity, gas lines, and services, there.

I am sure that the farsighted ideas of strategic retreat will not dominate the discourse about our response to Hurricane Sandy. Those living along the Jersey Shore will want to rebuild, demanding Federal and state money to do so. 

Perhaps it will take the exhaustion of sand reserves to spell the end of this industrial era approach to enjoying nature: paving it, and covering it with sprawling residential communities.

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