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December 16, 2013

'Sand Wars' waged all along state's coast

Replenishing sand to protect against coastal erosion has become big business


Meanwhile, large amounts of sand once deposited onto area beaches as a byproduct of federal navigational dredging are declining along with funding for those projects.

The stakes are rising with sea levels. New England seas, like Atlantic coast seas down to the Carolinas, are rising at an annual rate three to four times faster than the global average, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. Scientists predict that seas here could rise three feet by the end of the century and we could see more powerful storms of the ilk of those in 2011 and 2012. The one-two punch of powerful storm surges atop higher seas is expected to mean more erosion and flooding ­— all of it further inland.

Replenishing beaches is big business elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast, where long meandering ribbons of sand from New York to Florida have been fortified for decades to protect shorefront homes and vacation destinations. New England beaches tend to be smaller and much of the coast is privately owned, so big projects never gained much political traction. There also is, environmentalists say, a leftover suspicion of mining anything from the sea that stretches back to oil exploration attempts in the early 1980s.

But as officials frown upon the new construction of seawalls because it can exacerbate erosion, sand is becoming increasingly valuable as the first line of defense against the ocean.

Record keeping is poor on New England sand replenishment although Massachusetts has begun to develop a database to track its use. Using that database and in interviews with coastal communities, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting conservatively estimates more than $40 million in federal, state and local funds has been spent to place sand on Massachusetts’ public beaches in the last decade. That amount is minuscule compared to the billions being spent to protect and replenish beaches further south in the wake of Sandy — yet coastal specialists say demand for sand is guaranteed to rise for both public and private beaches.

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