A plan to protect the inlet and our coastal communities

April 2, 2024

The last time the dune system along the northside of the Indian River Inlet collapsed and covered Route 1 with ocean waves and sand was 11 years ago in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. At the time, I was serving as secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and I vividly remember being onsite within a few hours of the storm passing. My team, led by Tony Pratt, and I huddled with the Delaware Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local governments, Gov. Jack Markell and Sen. Tom Carper to quickly devise a plan to make Route 1 accessible again, and restore the protective beach and dune system.

As DelDOT crews moved the sand off the road, our DNREC team worked collaboratively with the Army Corps to accelerate a maintenance dredging of the inlet and use the sand to rebuild the depleted protective barrier. We also repaired the sand bypass system that was damaged by Sandy, which moves sand trapped on the southside of the inlet to replenish the sand-starved dunes on the northside.

We once again need the same level of collaboration across levels of government that we enjoyed in the aftermath of Sandy. This starts with the state formally partnering with the Army Corps under Section 8327 of the 2022 Water Resources Development Act to empower the Army Corps to take emergency action. This section offers a framework for cooperation and resource allocation, enabling us to access greater federal support to bolster the dune system and fortify Route 1 against future threats.

Simultaneously, we must expedite repair of the pump system at the sand bypass plant. When operational, this system moves more than 100,000 cubic yards of sand from the southside of the inlet to nourish the protective dunes of the northside. This operation is designed to compensate for the interruption of the natural long-shore flow of sand that is cut off by the inlet and its jetties, resulting in a dramatic loss of sand supply to the beach and dune north of the inlet. For three years, this essential system has been down, impeding our ability to replenish sand along Route 1. Restoring the plant’s functionality is essential to ensure the continuous redistribution of sand, bolstering the north beach dune system and mitigating erosion.

We must also explore innovative approaches to sand replenishment and stabilization. Moving sand from the inlet channel or an adjacent shoal offers solutions to our near-term sand deficit. Strategically extracting sand from these natural reservoirs, planting dune grass and replenishing the dunes with a functioning bypass system, and examining more closely engineered solutions that address loss of sand on the north beach will not only enhance our resilience but also minimize environmental impacts.

Finally, we must rebuild our partnership with the Army Corps, and work together to forge and implement comprehensive, long-term solutions for coastal protection. So many recent successful joint projects – from the nourishment of our ocean beaches to the restoration of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and Mispillion Harbor – are a direct result of our long-standing partnership and the tireless leadership of Sen. Carper, who effectively uses his chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for restoration projects implemented in partnership with the Army Corps.

We must replicate these past successes and partner formally with the Army Corps on protecting Route 1 and the Indian River Inlet bridge by establishing a 100-foot-wide dune with a 200-foot beach. In addition, we must collaborate with the Army Corps on reducing flooding in the Inland Bays, restoring our ocean beaches to an even higher level of protection, and finally restoring our Delaware Bay beaches (where Sen. Carper has secured tens of millions for restoration projects that will only require a 10% state match).

Proactively investing in coastal restoration and natural defenses is an absolute imperative for safeguarding the livelihoods and well-being of our communities, ecosystems and recreational tourism-based economy. As we face more frequent climate-fueled extreme weather and accelerating sea-level rise, we need to be investing at least $20 million annually in large-scale ecological restoration and community resilience projects statewide. This will allow us to secure the hundreds of millions in federal funds necessary to protect billions of dollars of infrastructure, jobs and our coastal communities. That’s an incredibly smart return on investment to secure the future of our state and our unrivaled natural resources.

Collin O’Mara is the former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control and a Democratic candidate for governor.
  • Cape Gazette commentaries are written by readers whose occupations, education, community positions or demonstrated focus in particular areas offer an opportunity to expand our readership's understanding or awareness of issues of interest.

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