AMESBURY — There will be no more sand dumped on Lake Gardner Beach for the annual sand castle contest. And kids at Camp Bauercrest won't be enjoying the same sandy beach when the hot days of summer come.
Though it's technically a violation of the law, many residents living along Lake Gardner and Lake Attitash have been filling in their lakefront properties with sand for years. But that practice may soon come to an end, given that new, tougher wetlands protection restrictions have been put into place by the town and require Amesbury's Conservation Commission to put the kibosh on the practice.
The commission, a five-member board appointed by the mayor, recently denied a request from the owners of Bauercrest boys camp to spread 10 cubic yards of dumped sand on its Lake Attitash property, citing the sizable sandbar that's grown just west of the camp property as a result of the dumped sand.
Amesbury's own Department of Public Works has been dumping sand on the public beach at Lake Gardner since it was constructed in 1991. But even the town of Amesbury isn't above the new enforcement actions being undertaken through the Conservation Commission. After 16 cubic yards of sand was hauled onto the beach this year to make it suitable for the throngs of beach-goers expected to visit this summer, the town was denied the right to bring in the remaining 8 cubic yards needed to pull off this weekend's Amesbury Days sand castle competition.
According to DPW director Robert Desmarais, the Conservation Commission has demanded the town submit a letter of intent and go through the legal channels before bringing any more sand onto the popular beach.
"The town has been enriching the beach for as long as I've been there," Desmarais said. "We've gotten a tacit nod of approval from the Conservation Commission in the past. But due to other enforcement options, they want us to make a formal filing."
Last year, the Municipal Council unanimously passed Mayor Thatcher Kezer's request to expand wetlands protection laws and gave the Conservation Commission the power to draw them up. The commission approved the new rules in February.
Desmarais said the town won't be able to complete the process before the sand castle competition this weekend, which means there will be no large piles of sand for the kids to frolic in as they have in years past.
"We placed the sand for the beach itself but did not place the piles for the sand castle contest," Desmarais said.
Though the sand the town places on the beach is "clean" sand, as opposed to sand containing harmful contaminants or large amounts of phosphorous, there continues to be erosion issues at the public swimming area.
"We do have some erosion issues there, which is part of the reason for enriching the beach, but we have a grant to put a drainage swale behind the beach to limit the erosion. That should be implemented in the next few weeks," Desmarais said.
That won't happen in time for the sand castle competition, and although disappointed, Kezer's chief of staff Kendra Amaral said the Conservation Commission regulations should be applied universally.
"Consistency is important," Amaral said. "At the same time, there will be ways to figure it out to ensure the event isn't killed and people can still have a good time. They're working on the solution because the sand castle contest is a draw for beach day."
Camp Bauercrest denied
"Camp Bauercrest has been there for 100 years," said Conservation Commission Chairman Stephen Langlois. "Every three years, they decide to put sand on the beach without coming before the board."
This year, Bauercrest had 10 yards of sand delivered to the beach — two large piles that came to the attention of the town's building inspector as they sat waiting to be spread across the waterfront, Langlois said.
"We did not want the sand spread on the beach," Langlois said, citing the high risk for erosion at that particular site. "You have a very steep incline — there's a higher chance of sand getting into the water from that location. We stopped them."
The problem with the dumped sand is that the natural ecosystem of the lake depends on the organic matter, which is being covered by the eroded sand, Langlois said.
"It covers over the natural vegetation that lies on the bottom of the lake," Langlois said. "Leaves fall off the trees, and it creates weeds and things that are made for the native species that exist in the lake. The sand covers all this organic material, and things can no longer grow there. It starves the lake of oxygen because vegetation creates oxygen for the lake."
The owners of Bauercrest, on Old County Road, were depending on spreading the sand across their beach to prepare for the arrival of overnight campers, who will now have to traverse a rocky beachfront in order to take a swim. Though Langlois feels badly that the camp was not warned of this in all its years doing business on Attitash, he stresses there are ways to mitigate the erosion if residents go through the legal process of submitting a letter of intent to the Conservation Commission.
"I don't think people today blatantly want to pollute the environment," said Langlois, who added that the owners of the camp didn't realize they were doing anything harmful. But they need to know illicit dumping is in violation of the Wetlands Protection Act, which gives governing authority to the local Conservation Commission to enforce, he said.
"(Violators) could be subject to enforcement action by the Conservation Commission or the Department of Environmental Protection," said DEP spokesman Ed Coletta, adding it could range from restoring the wetland to the condition it was in prior to the dumping, or paying a stiff fine.
"You do this without authorization, and there's impact to the wetland that could impact the water body or vegetative wetlands. It's species habitat, and wetlands are also used to help filter storm water running into the lake."
Reason to not dump sand
According to a fact sheet on sand dumping for beach construction put out by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, lakes act as settling basins for their watersheds, collecting and accumulating materials that drain into them, resulting in a gradual filling in over time.
"Any activity that adds material to a lake over the natural supply will increase the rate of lake filling," according to the NHDEP. If the shoreline does not have a natural beach, it likely means any dumped sand will either drift away with the current or settle into the mucky bottom sediments. It doesn't leave the lake, and depending on the chemical makeup of the sand, it can prove exceedingly harmful.
Sand is typically inconsistent in its makeup, and even clean beach sand can contain iron, which causes rust-colored slime deposits and oil-like films on the sand as they oxidize.
Sand can also contain clay, which contributes to turbidity problems in the lake, or phosphorus, which contributes to increased plant growth in the body of water.
"Dumping sand along the shore of a lake can smother benthic (bottom dwelling) algae and invertebrates, causing a disruption in the food chain of higher organisms, including fish," according to the NHDEP. "Spawning or nesting sites for fish may also be destroyed by deposited sand, and turbidity from the deposited sand may interfere with normal fish behavior by clogging gills."