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NJ’s beaches wash away faster than feds can fix them

Posted on May 29, 2024

Shore beach towns look for immediate fixes while nature strips away the sand

Beach season is a real cliffhanger in North Wildwood. Ravaged dunes look like they’ve been bulldozed. It’s skinny beach — brutally stripped of sand by erosion — can almost disappear under a high tide in some sections.

“High tide — there’s no beach. None. So where you gonna put your towel?” asked North Wildwood resident Steve with a rueful laugh.

Like other locals, he’s concerned because if North Wildwood loses beachfront it loses business. The town markets itself with the motto, “Sun and Sand.” Summer resident Lucille Stanziale says cancellations have already started rolling in.

“And I think it’s taking a financial hit on the whole area here because a lot of people have canceled and relocated to a different part of the shore, or they’re just going on cruises or going somewhere else,” she said.

North Wildwood is not the only Jersey Shore beach town struggling to rebuild beaches and patch dune breaks in time for the summer tourist season. The town did manage — after filing a lawsuit — to compromise with the state on a quick fix. Other towns, like Atlantic City and Ortley Beach also desperately need more sand. They’re on the list for federal beach replenishment.

The problem? Erosion is gouging beaches faster than the Army Corps of Engineers can repair them. The Corps works on a rotating multi-year cycle with New Jersey shore towns that started in the early 1990s. This season, for example, it’s dredged, pumped and spread sand on beaches in Strathmere and Sea Isle City. Summer is when Jersey Shore towns make their money — up to $30 billion a year in tourist dollars.

But beach replenishment comes at a cost. One eye-opening study shows that, per foot of shoreline New Jersey leads the nation in beach replenishment — more than $3 billion from all sources, adjusted for inflation since 1936 — 245 million cubic yards of sand. And that sand keeps getting washed away. It’s the Corps mission to replace it.

“In general in New Jersey, with a very highly developed shoreline with homes, businesses, roads boardwalks, utility lines, all of that, generally speaking, beach fill emerged as the most cost-effective way to manage the risk,” says Army Corps spokesman Steve Rochette.

Stockton University has identified lots of erosion hot spots all along the Jersey shore. Some places flood on sunny days simply from high tides. With New Jersey’s sea levels projected to rise another two feet by 2050, Kim McKenna, interim director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton, warns the Army Corps may have to rethink its approach.

“It means we all have to figure out how to adapt to that. If we’re not willing to move off of the barrier islands, we have to figure out what’s the best way to adapt to these rising waters,” said McKenna. “We can certainly place more sand on the beaches. It’s going to be extremely expensive.”

“The fear is, everyone’s gonna have a different breaking point, and every municipality has different challenges,” says Christina Renna, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Southern New Jersey. With erosion now outpacing the Army Corp’s efforts to repair beaches in some places, it’s a changing economic reality.

“The beach replenishment projects are necessary and expensive. Creating infrastructure, new infrastructure that is raised higher, expensive,” Renna says. “There is no easy solution to this problem.”

It’s a risky business. Casinos along Atlantic City’s erosion-prone north end have privately paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to replenish sand that winter storms gouged out of their beaches. But it’s gone now and the city is not due for Army Corps beach replenishment until next year.

“The beach is dangerous right now. You can see the condition that it’s in,” says Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small. “We have tremendous Beach Patrol and everything, but safety is first and foremost. And that’s what we want to stress here.” Atlantic City is working with state officials.

Meanwhile, North Wildwood scored a last-minute emergency rescue. A $17 million dredging project in nearby Hereford Inlet will soon funnel more than 330,000 cubic yards of sand via pipeline to help bolster the town’s damaged beachfront until the Army Corps can do a full-scale beach restoration next year. New Jersey pays $10 million and the city will pay $7 million. The bigger sandy beach by July 4 is priceless.

“Hereford Inlet hasn’t been dredged in over 10 years,” says North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. “There’s a restriction on using any federal money to dredge Hereford Inlet. But because this project will be 100% state and local, we’re able to dredge out of here.”

Until its beach gets rebuilt, the town will ban big cabanas and outsized tents — so more folks like Stanziale and her family — can fit in to enjoy the Sun and Sand.


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