2012-12-14 / Top Stories

To Dune Or Not To Dune?

The Future Of Rockaway Beaches
By Robby Schwach

Water had already broken through hastily built sand berms at Beach 124 Street at 1:30 p.m., long in advance of Sandy’s landfall. Water had already broken through hastily built sand berms at Beach 124 Street at 1:30 p.m., long in advance of Sandy’s landfall. The losses caused by Superstorm Sandy are numerous. Some Rockaway residents lost their lives in the storm, many others lost their homes and property. Few residents escaped without substantial property loss, and almost everyone had to deal with the loss of power and heat.

The feelings of hopelessness and a loss of control were evident.

But the residents of Rockaway may have some control over what happens to our beaches and boardwalk, as government entities struggle to find the best way to restock the beach, replace the boardwalk, and find the funds to do both. Local elected officials publicly promised as much at the recent, “Demand the Sand” rally hosted by the group, Friends of Rockaway Beach.

But what does Rockaway need? What is the best way to replenish the beach while protecting the property on nearby streets? Those questions have multiple answers that depend on who you’re talking to.

Community Board District Manager Jonathan Gaska says that some recent studies that might have offered solutions have seemingly gone nowhere.

“A ten-year study began in 1995, involving (sand) replenishment every two years, then the installation of rock jetties, but it (the project) ran out of money.”

“A number of attempts have been made to redo or finish the study, most recently by (former) Congressman Weiner, and that effort also included money for replenishment,” Gaska added.

Dan Falt, a Project Manager with the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) confirmed the lack of finality with the most recent survey. He explains:

“We’ve (ACE) been replenishing the beaches of Rockaway for years. From 1975-2004, we’ve put more than 20 million cubic yards of sand back on Rockaway beaches. In 2004, the nourishment project ended and after an agreement with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, we began a comprehensive study to identify alternatives to just replacing sand. We were very close to listing the alternatives, and were ready to begin the next steps of the project including public meetings and a design phase. …..we would need an additional million dollars to complete the study.”

Falt also called Superstorm Sandy a “game changer” that might ultimately affect the suggested alternatives that were in the original study.

Many at the “demand the sand” rally supported the building of “rock jetties”, similar to those that already exist in the area of Beach 86 Street. Supporters point out that the damage to the beach and nearby property wasn’t nearly as bad as the rest of the west end of the peninsula that didn’t have rock jetties, so the choice is obvious.

Not so fast.

First, the existing rock structures aren’t actually jetties. They’re groins. Jetties protect inlets and harbors, but what we have on our beaches are groins, which inhibit beach erosion. Groins “trap” sand that might otherwise move further down the beach as tides come and go. But even this silly lesson in semantics ends with a caveat. Groins only inhibit the beach erosion where they’re actually installed. They actually encourage erosion further down the beach. So, while the groins may have offered some protection for the residents of Dayton Towers East (Beach 76-88 Streets), they may have left the beaches further west even more vulnerable to damage.

If groins are the answer, the Rockaways would need a “groin field,” that runs along the whole peninsula, allowing us all to receive equal protection from beach erosion. Assuming the existing groins from Beach 59 Street to Beach 87 Street are a model for the new project, groins would need to be installed every four blocks, from Beach 91 Street to Beach 149 Street. These fifteen or more new groins would likely take years to complete and cost tens of millions of dollars. Individual groins could cost in excess of one million dollars each. Groins would also need to be placed on the east end of the peninsula. Ultimately, while this project would help fight erosion, sand replenishment projects would still be necessary, but less frequently than without them.

Would the installation of groins have protected us from the effects of Sandy? No, not even close. Beach erosion is a problem, but even the large sand berms that the Parks Department built just before Sandy arrived weren’t enough to stop the storm surge.

What about dunes? Large dunes would help to inhibit beach erosion and act as a barrier to storm surge. But they might not have been enough to fight the surge that Sandy provided either.

Dunes aren’t just a mound of sand. Any Rockaway resident who has built a sand castle with their kids knows that eventually the sea will win out in the end.

Real dunes may take years to form, created and seeded by man, but developed and improved by nature. What differentiates a pile of sand from a real dune is its grass and roots, which reach deep into the dune and keep the structure of the dune together. Dunes also, are not a panacea. While they will help to fight erosion and offer a protective barrier, they won’t withstand every storm surge indefinitely.

Dunes require lots of money, hard work, patience, and community acceptance, things that are in short supply as of late.

A series of dune projects in the Belle Harbor and Neponsit areas almost a decade ago found many detractors. Dunes prohibit access to the beach in certain areas, and block views of the beach for some people who paid a lot of money for oceanfront views. There were lawsuits alleging the private funding of dunes and the idea of the Parks Department creating dunes without public input. The lawsuit was thrown out of court based on the lack of a “standing to sue” and the statute of limitations time limits to file a lawsuit. The larger issue of dune protection was lost in the margins. Actually, it was lost all together.

Dunes, like groins, are just one weapon in the beach erosion arsenal.

What about seawalls? The creation of a seawall, an impermeable barrier built of concrete or other material could be built under/around the boardwalk to prevent the beach from passing the boardwalk. One such plan back in 1965 called for the building of seawalls eighteen feet above mean sea level on the land side of the boardwalk as well as near the Marine Park Bridge. The Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to build the project but no one there now seems to know exactly why it wasn’t completed.

If seawalls are built high enough, they should prevent the storm surge from coming ashore. But they cause other problems. As water reaches the seawall and gets reflected back toward the ocean, even more and more sand erodes and returns to the ocean, eventually digging out deeper and deeper ditches that eventually lower the beach level and undermine the seawall.

In essence, the building of groins, dunes, and seawalls all require regular sand replenishment to ensure protection from a major storm.

Some residents, such as John Cori, from the group Friends of Rockaway Beach, favor such a multi-pronged approach. Cori’s group has been fighting for money to replenish and protect the beach for some time, conducting rallies and meeting with elected officials. Cori has been determined to protect the beaches and has become the “go-to” guy for beach issues and members of the media. After the storm, a damaged handball court along the beach had been painted with the words, “John Cori was right.”

Even if the residents of Rockaway agree upon a plan that combines the installation of groins, dunes and a seawall, they may be short term solutions to a much larger problem, one on a global scale.

“This (Sandy) was a rare event, but not the big one yet to come”, Dr. Nicholas Coch said. Coch is a Professor at CUNY/Queens College, and has conducted research on coastal geology and is an expert on northern hurricanes. He has authored many studies on hurricane vulnerability.

Coch is just one of many scientists who question the sustainability of building along the beach in the first place.

“People are really getting tired of paying for sand projects and rebuilding”, he warned.

“With sea levels rising, houses (near the beach) may be gone no matter what you do. A one foot rise in sea level will cause a subsequent rise on the shore of 200-500 feet.” He added.

There is reason to be hopeful in the short term, as Falt from the Army Corps of Engineers reassures us.

“Public law 84-99 authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers in an emergency such as this major storm, an exception to allow us to use 100% federal funding to restore the beach to prestorm conditions.”

This can apparently be done without the normal arduous process of years of studies and environmental issues that normally delay such projects. Falt said that the Corps is currently assessing the damage done by the storm and trying to get an accurate accounting of how much sand was lost. With pieces falling into place, and funding hopefully secured quickly, the sand may be replaced by the start of hurricane season (summer ’13).

Some things seem certain. Rockaway residents need to become more informed if they want to be in a position to affect policy decision despite elected official’s promises. Residents will also need to take time out from rebuilding their own lives and homes if the funding for beach replenishment is to be made a priority.

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