State and federal agencies responsible for replenishing beaches have recently agreed to alter some New Jersey projects — and change the shape of the state’s coastline — at the behest of one group: surfers.
Richard Lee started surfing on the Jersey Shore in 1963. He knew the best spots close to his Monmouth County hometown of Sea Bright, but then, one day, they were gone — victims of a 1990s beach-replenishment project by the Army Corps of Engineers.
It took at least 18 months for the waves in some of those spots to return, Lee said, and some are still gone, including those at the Alfred Ferguson Surfing Beach in Sea Bright.
“Ironic, isn’t it? A surfing beach with no waves?” asked Lee, now 60 and executive director of the Surfers Environmental Alliance. “But that’s what happens. They come in, and the waves disappear.”
Beach-replenishment projects change the way the waves break. Waves usually go from having directional breaks that crash gradually — often due to a slowly sloping beach floor or a sandbar just offshore — to crashing straight onto beaches with a more severe slope.
The sand from the project often covers those sandbars, jetties and other permanent structures. This provides straighter-looking beaches and, more importantly, a sizable buffer between the destructive ocean and oceanfront homes.
“It’s almost like we woke up one day, the beach was 300 feet wider and the waves were gone … we got hosed,” John Weber, the Surfrider Foundation’s northeast regional manager, said of one of the 1990s projects in Monmouth County.
Keith Watson, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia office, said his agency, as well as the state and local agencies it partners with, routinely solicit input from stakeholders before starting replenishment projects. As a result, Watson said, the corps no longer “overfills” certain areas along the coast just to have shorelines that are straight.
“We try to have the beaches follow the existing shoreline and nourished as close as possible to the existing slope,” said Watson, adding that wave breaks usually return to their pre-construction form in a matter of months. “But some beaches do return faster than others.”
Many surfers, however, argue the negative effects of beach replenishment outweigh the positive ones.
And Weber said the Surfrider Foundation has more problems with beach replenishment than just its effect on wave breaks, including the steep slope of the ocean floor, the force with which the waves hit the reconstructed beach and the high cost of the taxpayer-funded projects, which ultimately are nonpermanent solutions.
“It doesn’t address all of the problems and gives people a false sense of security,” Weber said. “It gives rise to more unwise coastal development in an age when we should be doing everything we can to limit coastal development.”
But Stewart Farrell, director of Richard Stockton College’s Coastal Research Center, said the projects are desperately needed.
“Beach conditions that existed prior to any of these beach fills were terrible. Let’s face it: Some of these areas were in dire straits. And for the well-being of those towns and for New Jersey tourism, these projects needed to be done. While the surfers might have lost their favorite beach to surf on, the bulk of the tourism dollars do not come from surfers,” Farrell said.
In an attempt to address some of the issues surfers have fought against, however, the Army Corps has recently been trying new, or additional, nourishment techniques.
“Surfers are a cross section of the general public. ... They want to engage us to initiate changes they are passionate about, and they understand working with us is a better way to accomplish that,” said Daniel Falt, a project manager for the Army Corps’ New York District, which is responsible for the Monmouth County replenishment projects. “And anytime we can make small changes to a design without affecting its effectiveness, we want to be able to do that and, in many cases, we have.”
But the corps’ New York district has done more than just make “small changes” recently.
In 2009, they spent $1 million in funding through the state to build a sand point on the coast of Long Branch in an attempt to “mitigate the temporary negative impact” of replenishment projects.
But without a hard structure to keep the sand in place, the Long Branch point quickly eroded. So this year — without similar funding and trying to attack the problem a different way — the corps created a “bump-out” or a feeder beach on a project in Monmouth Beach. And while that 200-foot bump-out has also started to erode, Falt said it has not done so at the rate the Long Branch one did.
“We consider it to be working,” Falt said.
On a recent weekday morning, Lee strolled along the Monmouth County beach where the bump-out was installed. The waves were small but broke left. A 3-foot cliff was eroded into the beach, but at least the beaches were there. Months earlier, waves at high tide crashed against a man-made seawall, which is the last barrier between the ocean and the residential community on the other side.
Lee said the bump-out was such a significant improvement, that surfers hope engineers will consider installing more of them along the coast during replenishments.
“We would really like to see a permanent reef built offshore. Everyone would benefit from something like that,” Lee said. “But if these nourishments have to happen, it would be great to see more of an undulating coastline, with these bump-outs every so often, because it would theoretically protect property and the surf.”
Another issue that surfers blame beach-replenishment projects on is the perceived rise in neck and back injuries allegedly caused by the projects.
The Army Corps engineers doubted that the rise in injuries is related to beach-replenishment projects, saying they have never seen any proof otherwise, offering instead that there are more injuries because more people can use the beaches.
However, the Army Corps cited the concerns about injuries as one of the reasons it used a new technique called “backpassing” on a recently completed project in Cape May, during which sand was excavated from an area of the beach with excess sand and the slope of the beach was altered to create a more gradual decline.
“This is not a permanent solution. It is a demo project, and we are still doing surveys to see how it responds, but one possible outcome is a more gradual beach slope,” said Dwight Pakan, the corps’ manager for the project. “We definitely don’t build these projects in a vacuum. We stay in constant contact with our sponsors, like the NJDEP (Department of Enivronmental Protection) and local communities, as well as other stakeholders. Everything we’re doing out there is for shore-protection purposes, but if there is anything we can do differently or better, a lot of times we will.”
Farrell said this is proof that the surfers are having an impact.
“Sure they’re listening. Anyone who makes enough noise gets listened to,” Farrell said. “And I have no doubt that the intensity of the lobbying effort from the surfing alliance got the Army Corps’ attention.”
And surfing advocates, such as Lee, consider each of these alterations to be a small victory.
“They are making modifications that have definitely helped keep the surf from being destroyed,” Lee said. “But the fact that the Army Corps and DEP even listened at all is a victory. We still have a way to go, but this is definitely a start.”
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