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Corps Project Aims to Repair 70 Years of Damage to Assateague Island

By Richard Todaro
Capital News Service
Friday, April 13, 2001

WASHINGTON - The Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend as much as $42 million over the next 25 years on a beach restoration project that it says will help recreate the natural barrier conditions on Assateague Island as they existed prior to 1933.

"The project is focused on getting sand back to Assateague Island in the most minimally intrusive way," said Carl Zimmerman of the National Park Service's Assateague Island National Seashore. "Then Mother Nature is going to determine how that sand expresses itself and how the island evolves."

But critics say the project represents, at best, a short-term solution made necessary by the corps' failure to consider accurately the impact of previous projects -- specifically the construction of jetties that have protected the Ocean City inlet since it was created by a storm in 1933.

"This is a failure of the corps to assess cumulative impacts," said Mike D'Amico of the Sierra Club. "This is a make-work project that is using tax dollars that is going to wash out to sea the next time a major nor'easter hits.

"And if they are not going to one day really sit down and look at the whole picture . . . rather than putting grains of sand on the beach, they might as well put dollar bills," D'Amico said.

President Bush included $10 million toward the $17.2 million first phase of the Assateague Island project, in the fiscal 2002 budget that he released last week.

Both sides agree that the cause of the problem confronting Assateague Island is the interruption of the natural southward transport of sand by the two jetties straddling either side of the Ocean City Inlet.

That inlet was created in 1933 when a powerful storm breached the barrier island, creating a temporary inlet that the corps made permanent by constructing the jetties in 1934. The corps acted at the urging of state and local officials, who had been seeking a shortcut between the coastal bays and the open ocean.

The inlet stabilization worked, but over the past 70 years, it has cost Assateague 6 million cubic yards of sand and led to an accelerated migration of the dunes toward Sinepuxent Bay, according to Zimmerman, who is a beach management specialist at the Assateague National Seashore.

"Assateague Island, like all barrier islands, is rolling over on itself in a process called transgression. It is linked to the change in sediment supply and to sea level rise," Zimmerman said. "The jetties have accelerated the transgression process dramatically for the northern six miles of the island."

He said the project is not a traditional beach replenishment but rather a "mitigation," designed to reverse the negative effects to the island from the original 1934 inlet navigation project.

"It is not a `replenishment' project in the sense it (the term) is customarily used, which is to stabilize a shore line, to replenish it and maintain it in a fixed position," Zimmerman said. "This is a mitigation project.

"The sole purpose of the project is to alleviate the past, the current, and the future impacts on Assateague Island resulting from the stabilized inlet at Ocean City," he said. "It is not intended to fix Assateague in a static location or create a fixed condition. Rather, it is intended to restore dynamic coastal processes by restoring the natural sand budget for the island."

Project manager Patricia Coury of the corps' Baltimore district office agreed.

"What we are really trying to do is restore the beach to the condition it would have been in had it not been for some past corps' construction activities and natural events," Coury said.

But critics charge that, in trying to put the island back to the way it was, the corps will actually be causing environmental damage elsewhere.

D'Amico decried the corps' plans to get sand for the first phase of the project from the Great Gull Bank several miles off shore. He said that the $17.2 million phase to rebuild the island's beach and berm will do so by robbing an area he described as a "true oceanic wilderness."

Another point of contention is whether the initial phase will interrupt the fledging period of the threatened piping plover. D'Amico said that fully 60 percent of the bird's recovery zone on Assateague exists in the northern six miles where the first phase of the restoration is to occur.

But Zimmerman said the project has been "extraordinarily crafted to ensure no impact on the plover."

More generally, "every aspect has been planned in order to minimize the potential risks to the rare species that utilize the habitats of northern Assateague Island."

Coury said that the first phase of the project has been timed to avoid the plover's fledging period.

"The piping plover requires no construction work in its fledging period . . . between March 15th and September 1st on the northern side of the project area," Coury said. "We will strictly adhere to this."

But other corps critics say the project is driven less by concerns for the ecology of Assateague Island and more by concerns for property owners and "speculators" -- already subsidized by federal flood insurance money -- living on the mainland side of Chincoteague and Sinepuxent bays.

"A lot of big property owners and speculators who want to sell their land on the mainland side of Chincoteague Bay see Assateague as a barrier. . . .They want the island built up to where the water won't flow over it in a big storm," said Ilia Fehrer, the chair of the Worcester Environmental Trust.

She suggested Assateague should be left alone to "see what will happen. I think there is a lesson to be learned about what happens when sand flow is interrupted."

Orrin Pilkey, a renowned Duke University coastal geologist, did not comment specifically on the Assateague project. But he blasted the corps as a whole and said it is "incompetent as well in designing beach nourishment projects."

"They make predictions that never come true," Pilkey said. "They dramatically overestimate the life span of a beach. Then a storm comes along, and they say, well we had no way to predict that."

Because of rising sea levels, he said, "three generations from now, we are going to worry about New York City, Philadelphia and Boston" and not the survival of Assateague Island.

Coury conceded that the corps cannot ultimately beat Mother Nature -- and it is not trying to. The time frame for measuring success of the Assateague project will be the next 25 years, she said, not the next century.

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Copyright 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism.