Published on Saturday, March 11, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
A Perpetual Battle With Erosion
In the last 50 years, taxpayers have paid $600 million to protect coastal real estate. In the next 50, the bill could come to $5 billion.
by Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood

More than any state in the nation, New Jersey has taken a stand against the invading tides. It has the most engineered beach in the country, its coastline bearing more scar tissue than any other shoreline.

It has one of the nation's highest annual shore-protection budgets, $25 million, administered by the state's land-use agency, the Department of Environmental Protection.

The state is so committed to shoring up its beaches that the department's commissioner, Robert Shinn has lobbied in Trenton and Washington for beachfill money.

Today, buffering shore towns from the endless assault of the Atlantic Ocean are 483 sand-trapping groins, 23 miles of seawalls and bulkheads, and an assortment of wave-breakers, sandbags, Geotubes, Beachsaver Reefs and other devices.

From the great stone wall of Sea Bright to the reefs off Cape May Point - dedicated by Gov. Whitman herself five years ago - an Inquirer analysis shows that in the last 50 years, federal and state taxpayers have spent at least $600 million to protect coastal real estate. Most of that is investment property.

"Our obligation should be toward protecting the people," said Norbert P. Psuty, a Rutgers University geologist, "but should we be protecting their investments?"

It won't get any cheaper. The state has turned to beachfill as its prime weapon against erosion. But erosion is an endless process compounded by frequent storms, rising sea level, and dwindling supplies of sand - not to mention other engineering projects.

Taxpayers have committed $2 billion to pump sand on New Jersey beaches for the next 50 years. That cost could rise to $5 billion if other proposed beachfill projects come to fruition.

In Ocean City, which might be the coastal engineering capital of the United States, the state and federal governments plan to spend $350 million over the next 50 years.

For better or for worse, New Jersey is the prototype for coastal engineering nationwide.

For thousands of years, shorelines have ebbed and flowed, and barrier islands have moved, re-formed and disappeared.

Only in the last 150 years has this become a problem.

Until the late 17th century, the Jersey Shore was mostly deserted. In the 1850s, the railroads forever changed the Shore, bringing visitors and investors. Sea Isle City, uninhabited in 1850, had 300 cottages and 30 hotels by 1900.

Erosion was now a threat.

"Beach erosion as a problem exists only where development has taken place," noted the New Jersey Shore Protection Master Plan of 1981, the last one published by the state. It chided developers for exacerbating that problem by leveling dunes to clear land and provide oceanfront views.

Where the ocean meets the mainland, rising seas and sinking lands work in tandem to erode beaches. But barrier islands, such as those along the fragile chain from Long Beach Island to Cape May Point, are not eroding so much as re-forming.

As they are inundated by rising seas and storm waves, they literally move back from the encroaching ocean, toward the land. That's how they stay above water.

New Jersey's beaches are frequently pocked with peat, the remnants of old marshes that once were on the bay side of the islands. Periodically, storm waves peel away layers of sand to reveal tree stumps.

During storms, waves smash the beach and drag sand out to sea. As the waves advance landward over the flattened beachfront, they join forces with strong onshore winds to drive some of the sand westward, toward the mainland. In this way, the island rebuilds itself.

Under ordinary circumstances, as sea level rises, Seven Mile Island might migrate ever so slowly toward the mainland.

However, Avalon and Stone Harbor, located on the island, are not going anywhere soon. They have been anchored in place by $3 billion worth of real estate, and both towns are waiting for a 50-year federal beachfill project such as the one in Ocean City.

For Ocean City, it is just the latest in a long history of fills.

According to records of the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, more than 15 million cubic yards of sand have been dumped or pumped on the city's five miles of beaches since the 1950s. That represents close to one-third of all the sand ever placed on the state's beaches. Virtually every block of beach fronts a bulkhead, and 50 groins - giant sand clamps of stone and timber - stripe the beach, one every few blocks.

"They're at war with the sea," Psuty said.

Until 1982, the city had its own dredge and was drawing sand from the bay. It undertook 12 major projects between 1970 and 1982. In the 1990s, the Army came to the rescue.

With the intervention of an influential congressman, William Hughes, who happened to live in Ocean City, the town secured a 50-year federal project covering virtually the entire beach.

Ocean City's future has not been secured, however. Like all Corps projects, Ocean City's will last 50 years only if funding is available, and those decisions are made year to year. The same is true in North Jersey. Even if fully funded, the projects might be little more than very costly Band-Aids.

The wild and chaotic episodes that characterize erosion are embedded in a larger and incontrovertible trend: The oceans are slowly drowning the shorelines.

The oceans worldwide have been swelling since the end of the most recent ice age, about 12,000 years ago, the result of melting glaciers, sinking land masses, and shifts in the Earth's crust.

In the last 100 years, sea level has risen 16 inches, according to measurements at the Atlantic City tidal gauge.

Controversy continues over whether the rate will accelerate because of human-enhanced global warming. But even at current rates, a little more than an inch every seven years, the rising waters are an ever-growing threat to coastal property.

The waters along the Jersey coast are seven inches higher than they were when the Shore was ravaged by a 1944 hurricane.

At today's levels, the five high tides during the devastating 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm each would have been five inches higher, resulting in more flooding and more wave power. Wave force increases with height in such a way that a four-foot wave is about twice as powerful as a three-foot wave.

In short, Psuty said, a 100-year storm is not what it used to be.

It's a 30-year storm.

"We're tripling the recurrence intervals," he said.

Even Shinn acknowledges that someday the state may have to be less ambitious in its shore-protection program. "You can't do this forever," he said. "But in the reasonable future our plan is a realistic one."

2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.