Any artificial alteration of a migrating barrier beach, however, can result in the interruption of the barrier’s equilibrium and can cause excessive beach erosion during severe winter storms. Oftentimes, the response to beach overwash, shoreline retreat and flooding is to try to armor the beach with seawalls and other hard structures in an attempt to protect the beach and any buildings constructed on it.
Unfortunately, these alterations, along with bulldozing of beachfront sand or so-called beach scraping, and the placement of rocks and boulders do not protect the beach, but instead place it at greater risk. These attempts to “stabilize” the beach interrupt natural beach-building processes, retard dune growthand acerbate erosion of the beach itself and adjacent areas. These understandable yet futile and self-defeating responses can provide a false sense of security.
At Plum Island, we have a situation that includes a highly dynamic barrier beach, residential and infrastructure development in the middle of the barrier, old stone groins at the water’s edge that interrupt sand that would naturally flow to and nourish the beach, a nearby Merrimack River stone jetty that robs additional sediment from the system, increased sea level rise with accelerated beach erosion, more frequent and severe nor’easters and super storms, and human attempts to hold the beach in place. This all results in a barrier beach whose ability to protect what is behind it greatly compromised and severely diminished.
Fortunately, Massachusetts prepared for these types of situations following the Blizzard of ‘78. Along with a Governor’s Executive Order that prohibits public investments in barrier beach development, coastal standards were established to ensure the natural functioning of beaches and dunes and limit their future development. These policies, however, are only as good as their compliance. It is thus up to the state’s environmental agencies to avoid future crises, such as we see at Plum Island, and enforce the law in a tough, fair and compassionate manner.
Jack Clarke was chairman of the Massachusetts Barrier Beach Task Force in the Weld Administration and is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon.