When storm surge from Hurricane Sandy breached the dune at the Indian River Inlet last October, local and state officials called for extensive beach repair work north of the inlet.
The federal government responded by designating up to $30 million to repair Delaware's coastline, including a major nourishment project at the inlet. The project caught the attention of the Delaware Surfrider Foundation, which is concerned the project may ruin one of state's most reliable surf spots. Members say pumping sand will not solve the problems, and deficiencies in the northside dune will continue to cause problems in the future.
At a May 14 Delaware Surfrider Foundation meeting, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Shoreline Administrator Tony Pratt said a study is underway to look at problems, particularly the jetty. He said the forthcoming work will restore the beach to a pre-Sandy profile, but it likely will not prevent closures of Route 1 during future storms.
“People say we can't afford to have Route 1 closed during every major storm,” he said. “I've assured legislative members that that's going to happen regardless of what we do because this road bed is close to the marsh surface, as far as elevation, that it's going to be flooded. What we really want to alleviate is the added delay that comes when there is three, four, five feet of sand on these roadways.”
The Surfrider Foundation invited Pratt to its May meeting after plans were announced to widen the beach at the inlet. The group was concerned the project would decimate one of the few consistent surf spots in Delaware. Pratt, a surfer himself, said he understands the concerns.
“It's my sincere hope, not just hope, but my optimism that by fall we'll have good break, just about the time southern swells are coming back,” he said. “I'm crossing my fingers that it all works out.”
Work is scheduled to begin the third week of June, Pratt said, with sand pumping beginning in the early part of July. Crews should move a little less than a tenth of a mile per day, he said. The goal is to restore the beach to a 1980s and '90s profile, which is a 100-foot dune backing 150 to 200 feet of beach in front.
Pratt's definition for success is three-pronged – protection of Route 1, restoration of a good surf break and a wide recreational beach. The protection of Route 1 has been a big issue in the last year, when storms resulted in two lengthy closures. Pratt said this project will not prevent future closures during major storms.
Of utmost concern for many who attended the meeting was surfing conditions. To ensure good surfing returns to the north side within six months, Pratt said, he told the Army Corps of Engineers to pump finely grained sand from off Fenwick Island. Sand will also be dredged from inside the inlet.
Steve Myers, a DSF member, said finer sand packs better and makes a better sand bar whereas coarse sand creates deep drop offs and a steep shore break, which are not conducive to surfing.
Myers, a surfer in Delaware since the 1970s, said the solution to the problem on the inlet's north side is much larger than pumping sand onto the beach. He said, and many in attendance at the surfrider meeting agreed, the major issue at the inlet is the northside jetty. Once several hundred feet longer with a lighthouse on the end, Myers said, the jetty's length is losing about 2 feet each year and the jetty has large holes that allow sand to seep through.
The jetty was built in 1938 as a navigational channel and is owned and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. DNREC is not allowed to perform any repairs or maintenance on the structure.
“In my personal opinion, the Army Corps has not accepted the responsibility for the deterioration of the northside jetty, which has contributed to the loss of sand,” Myers said. “They need to accept some responsibility for this jetty because it belongs to DNREC, it belongs to the people of Delaware and all the people who visit the area.”
Pratt said a remedy to the jetty problem comes down to money that is not available.
“We're up against some real problems at the federal level,” he said. “They don't have the money to do any of these kinds of things. They don't even have the money to maintain the channel.”
Because of budget constraints, Pratt said, the C & D Canal and the Port of Wilmington are the only two waterways the Army Corps maintains.
In the meantime, Pratt said, there has been a comprehensive partnership study set up to look at the northside jetty. DNREC and the Army Corps are teaming up with a research group from the University of Delaware to explore northside sand loss problems.
“We really want to model this whole inlet complex, in a general sense, to find out if we would be better off investing money in the repair of that jetty, putting it back [to its original design],” he said. “We want to know if we would retain sand longer here if we did this.”
Regardless of possible jetty problems, beach replenishment will likely move forward this summer. Entirely funded by the federal government, the project will also nourish the beaches in Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island. The plan is to restore the beach and dunes to their pre-Sandy profiles, including freshly planted dune grass and repaired beach crossovers.