By Dave Rogers
---- — PLUM ISLAND -- The damaging storms of winter are a fading memory, but Plum Islanders are taking steps now to try to strengthen the fragile dunes before the next onslaught of storms arrives.
For about 90 minutes Tuesday, a handful of volunteers embedded dozens of wooden shims in a section of sand off 57th Street. It is hoped these shims will act like sea grass and collect enough wind-blown sand to help reconstruction dunes battered by weather and trampled by humans.
Should the shims do as hoped, and there is little reason to doubt their effectiveness after the same technique was used to rebuild dunes on Cape Cod, more shims will be placed on dunes later this year farther along the coastline towards Salisbury.
The shims are part of a system called “biomimicry” first developed by Safe Harbors Environmental, a small company based out of Wellfleet, and used to collect and stabilize wind blown sand, much like native vegetation does.
Among those getting their hands dirty Tuesday was Plum Island resident and City Councilor Allison Heartquist who said officials will be checking on the shims weekly to gauge how well the project is going. If all goes as planned, officials will merely lift the sand covered shims higher and let nature continue to rebuild the dunes.
Heartquist called Tuesday’s activity the beginning of a pilot program aimed at educating residents about the tools available to combat beach erosion and to see if the project works.
“The more sand it collects, the more it works,” Heartquist said.
Heartquist said the shims were paid for through leftover Community Preservation Act funds earmarked for dune nourishment and protection. A package of 42 shims can be purchased for as little as $2 each.
The ultimate goal is to help rebuild the frontal dunes in the area of 53rd to 61st streets where they have experienced severe erosion and where homes are located only a short distance away. The most dramatic storm damage on the island occurred about two miles further south, along Annapolis Way and Fordham Way, where six homes were lost to erosion damage.
The winter storm season, from Oct. 15 to April 15, is considered the optimum time to utilize this type of “biomimicry” system, but the city chose to install it during the summer with the hope of educating visitors and possibly capturing sand blown by “side-shore” summer winds, according to city officials.
The “biomimicry” system is one of two projects currently underway to protect and rebuild the coastal dunes on the northern portion of Plum Island. The other component, erection of sand fencing along the 61st Street path, is aimed at keeping beach-goers from walking on the fragile dune grass and “back dune” vegetation that anchors the sand to the island. This is the most expansive area of coastal dune on Newburyport’s northern end of Plum Island. It protects the neighborhoods along North Reservation Terrace and Northern Boulevard from the kind of coastal erosion and storm damage that is well known on other parts of Plum Island.
“Our goal is to keep this vast dune system healthy and strong by minimizing disturbance to the healthy vegetation. Dune grass can withstand 80-mile-per-hour winds but will die if trampled,” Conservation Administrator Julia Godtfredsen said.
Residents and visitors going to and from the beach near 61st Street should use this pathway whenever possible. New signage has been erected along the sand fence to direct beach-goers and educate them about dune protection. There are additional public access points at the ends of 57th, 55th and 53rd streets in Newburyport, Godtfredsen added.
Conservation officials began discussing the possible use of the “biomimicry” system during a public meeting April which drew members of the island’s Beach Management Committee.