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Winter storms are eroding Misquamicut. Could this sand restoration plan be the answer?

Posted on June 5, 2024

On a fine summer day, you can probably find Caswell Cooke on a stage near Misquamicut Beach wearing a sailor’s outfit and jamming with his band, Caswell & the Peel N’ Eats.

These days you can also find Cooke in slacks and a jacket in meeting rooms trying to persuade Westerly residents and city officials to save Misquamicut Beach from coastal erosion. In recent months, Cooke has made his case before the Misquamicut Business Association – over which he presides – Westerly’s Town Council – on which he once served – and the Misquamicut Fire District.

“I mean, the bottom line is people talk about coastal erosion. They study coastal erosion. They’re fascinated by coastal erosion. But nobody does anything about coastal erosion. So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do something,’” Cooke said.

He cooked up a plan that involves dredging sand from the ocean floor onto the coast. It has been done in other coastal communities, perhaps most recently in Montauk, Long Island, in New York, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed 500,000 cubic yards of sand along 4,100 feet of coastline. The Montauk project cost $11.7 million and, thanks to favorable weather, was completed ahead of schedule.

Cooke wants to do the same along the three-mile stretch of Misquamicut Beach, which includes Misquamicut State Beach, the most popular in the state. He estimates the job would cost $24 million to $30 million over 10 years. But because the beach is split into sections owned by the state and the town, and the federal government would pick up part of the tab, the total cost to Westerly would be about $300,000 to $500,000 per year.

Economic impact of erosion

This is all “a rough sketch,” Cooke admits. But he emphasized that what Westerly risks losing if nothing is done is far greater. The houses – Cooke counted 218 – on Atlantic Avenue, which runs along Misquamicut Beach, generate about $8 million to $9 million in property taxes annually. There are about 50 businesses in the area, and hundreds of seasonal and permanent jobs. This isn’t counting the taxes from hotels and restaurants, the revenue from the large parking lots near the beach or the daily expenditures of beachgoers and other tourists.

“It’s so important to the local economy that I just feel something needs to be done, and no one’s coming up with any solutions except, you know, wait for the big one to take everything out,” Cooke said.

Heavy equipment clears sand from Atlantic Avenue in January after the third storm in a month washed out the dunes along the Misquamicut shoreline in Westerly.

Another big storm could inflict tremendous damage on the beach. It is still recovering after three back-to-back winter storms battered the coast, destroying dunes and washing sand onto Atlantic Avenue.

Implications for shoreline access

Conrad Ferla, a beach-access advocate, said saving Misquamicut is also a matter of public access.

“If the public doesn’t save Misquamicut, it literally is the only place where the working class are actually welcome to use the shore – out of the chunk of it – because it is surrounded by Weekapaug and Watch Hill, who have done everything they possibly can to exclude the public from using the shore. So if we let Misquamicut just wash away, then there really is no public beach in Westerly,” Ferla said.

Both Weekapaug and Watch Hill have restricted access and parking at their beaches.

Cooke argues that his project would actually expand access to Misquamicut Beach.

“If you put sand on the beach, that sand is now public,” Cooke said, though Ferla frets that local efforts may still be underway to try to restrict access to the beach.

Is ‘managed retreat’ an option?

Some Town Council members have suggested that the town may need to consider managed retreat, a strategy that allows the coastline to move inland. If anything, Cooke hopes his plan will buy Westerly time to find longer-term solutions to coastal erosion.

“Can anyone fight Mother Nature? No. Will Mother Nature eventually reclaim Misquamicut into the sea? Probably. But if we can hold it off a generation or two, and who knows? In another generation or two, there might be better or more permanent solutions,” Cooke said.


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