There was a sense of excitement Sunday among a crowd at the Lighthouse Overlook, not unlike a day a little more than 30 years ago. In both instances, the raw power of nature was on display and the future of an important segment of the community hung in the balance.
In January 1987, the ocean broke through North Beach opposite the lighthouse; shoaling, erosion and tidal changes caused by that breakthrough eventually cost nine houses, millions of dollars in protective revetments and dredging as well as unending headaches to fishermen and recreational boaters alike. At the time, nobody had any idea the ramifications would be so dire.
Saturday's new break in South Beach is directly linked to that event 30 years ago, which signaled the beginning of the breaking apart of the barrier beach. The 2007 break to the north started the breakup of North Beach (now an island); in the past few years, South Beach has been getting narrower and and its elevation lower. The 2013 break opposite South Monomoy Island started the process of that section of the beach breaking apart, which Sunday's storm furthered by scouring out a washover half a mile south of Lighthouse Beach, creating an inlet wide enough and deep enough for vessels to travel through. View of South Beach from the new break toward Monomoy now show less a barrier beach than a series of low sand bars, shoals and washovers.
Again, the consequences are portentous, to say the least. The 1987 inlet has been getting more and more difficult to navigate in recent years, with shoals extending from the southern tip of North Beach crowding the deep-water channel and creating dangerous conditions on the Chatham Bar. Geologists studying the Chatham barrier beach system have been watching this closely, expecting at some point a switch in the dominant inlet that serves Chatham Harbor and Pleasant Bay from the 1987 to the 2007 inlet. A slow trend in this direction has been shown by data gathered by tidal gauges at the fish pier and in Meetinghouse Pond in Orleans. This week's new break in South Beach is likely to further that process, according to Mark Borrelli of the Center for Coastal Studies.
Unless and until the 2007 break stabilizes into a viable navigation inlet, fishermen based at the pier in Aunt Lydia's Cove are likely to have problems getting to fishing grounds. It's possible that could happen soon. But it may not, and there are few options to help clear their path; dredging is unlike to win approval by environmental officials, would be expensive and not likely to last long.
Aunt Lydia's Cove committee chairman Doug Feeney is right when he says that town officials need to accelerate the process of turning town docks in Stage Harbor into a viable alternative for the fishing fleet. Improvements are now being completed at Old Mill Boatyard, designed to tie into future improvements at the adjacent Eldredge Trap Dock, which the town purchased last year. The five-year waterfront capital spending plan includes $2 million to upgrade the facility in 2019; that schedule should be moved up and a more comprehensive review conducted of what needs to be done to ensure that the fleet has an alternative offloading facility available.
As Harbormaster Stuart Smith recently pointed out, there's always been an outlet to the ocean from Pleasant Bay and Chatham Harbor. What's changed is that today's fishing – and recreational – vessels require deeper water to navigate. When the 1987 break happened, no one could foresee the trouble ahead. Today, the whole range of impacts of this week's new break in South Beach are laid out in front of us. Although nature will take its own course, there's no excuse this time not to be prepared.