CAPE MAY - The federal government has already proved it can make a bigger beach. This winter it will try to make a safer beach.
A pilot program at what is called "America's Oldest Seashore Resort" is a small part of a $12 million sand replenishment project set to begin in November. The project includes the pumping of 400,000 cubic yards of sand onto the beaches from offshore burrow sites.
That's been done regularly for more than two decades here. But this time the work will include moving another 40,000 cubic yards of sand already on the beach to different locations. The idea is to prevent the sand from forming steep cliffs and to create a more gradual slope so waves break farther offshore and cause fewer surf-related injuries.
"It's called back-passing," said project engineer Dwight Pakan, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "You take sand ... and back-pass it to areas that are eroding. It definitely will be a flatter slope. How long that will hold, we just don't know."
Several decades of beach replenishment have shown engineered beaches can be more dangerous than what was there naturally. Cape May was one of the first municipalities to undergo massive beach replenishment projects, which began in 1990, and the city quickly found the new sand was prone to rapid erosion that created cliffs under the surf, causing waves to break sharply near the shore.
The sharp shore break has led to more swimmers injuring their backs and necks in the surf. City officials responded by starting a public education campaign that includes posting signs, handing out brochures and teaching children at local schools about potentially dangerous surf conditions.
Fire Chief Jerry Inderwies, whose department also handles ambulance calls, said there were about 20 rescue calls for surf-related injuries in 2010 and 13 already this year, including two that involved helicopter trips to the hospital. A spinal injury was a rarity prior to beach replenishment, Inderwies said.
One problem is the sand mined from offshore is coarser and has a larger grain size. Inderwies said these features cause it to erode and create the cliffs.
Pakan said the Army Corps tries to pump in sand similar to what is on the beach, but he said one advantage of the pilot project is that it regrades sand already on the beach.
Inderwies remembers flood waters coming into the city regularly before beach replenishment. There was no beach at high tide. So, the program has met its goal of protecting property, he said.
Army Corps spokesman Richard Pearsall said the agency is concerned about reports of more injuries, but said that allowing the beaches to erode would leave the city vulnerable to storms and eliminate the beaches as a recreational area.
He said the Army Corps urges municipalities to regrade sand as needed, post warning signs and educate people about the risks.
"The ocean is an extremely dynamic force. Designing a beach template to be implemented with sand is not like designing a bridge that will be built with steel. The latter can be designed to stay put. The former will change, sometimes immediately and sometimes not so soon, but inevitably," Pearsall said.
As the first municipality to undergo beach replenishment, this city is dealing with many of these issues before anyone else. But other towns are starting to experience the same issues Cape May has had with engineered beaches.
Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island got new sand a couple of years ago and now has waves breaking closer to shore. Surf City, also on Long Beach Island, got sand this year and has seen a sharper shore break.
Long Beach Township is set to get sand this fall. Beach Patrol Supervisor Donald Myers said he expects minimal impacts on the shore break because there is usually a sandbar offshore. But too much new sand can overrun a natural sandbar offshore and bring the shoreline out to deep water. The deeper the water, the closer the waves break towards shore.
"I was in Cape May and Manasquan where the (new sand) negated the sandbar and the waves broke on the beach," said Myers.
In Atlantic City, which is getting sand on the north end of town this summer and the south end later this year, the beach tends to revert to its natural state rather quickly, Beach Patrol Chief Rod Aluise said.
"It has to do with the way the current works and the way the beach levels out. Currents are trickier in Cape May because of the Delaware Bay. I look for a positive effect. I think we'll see a diminishing effect on rip currents," Aluise said.
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