CHATHAM – Twice since January, flooding from heavy rains and tidal surges have made roads in the Little Beach area impassable. As South Beach rapidly deteriorates, eliminating protection from the open ocean the area has enjoyed for decades, the scenario is likely to be repeated fairly frequently, say officials.
“This is probably the new norm,” said Director of Health and Natural Resources Robert Duncanson.
Property owners in the area, some of whom had to be evacuated from their homes during the Jan. 4 winter storm, are organizing to develop a plan to prevent the worst of the flooding. Right now they're working with Outermost Harbor Marine to use sand dredged from the marina's channel to build up a dune in front of the condominium building on Starfish Lane – where ocean waters surged inland during the Jan. 4 winter storm – and have hired an engineer to look at long-term solutions. They're also working with the town to develop detailed information about the area and examine a plan to combat erosion and flooding in the area developed in the 1990s.
“We're trying to band together to work out a joint solution cooperative with the town,” said John Hausner, president of the condo association.
There's no town-owned property in the Little Beach neighborhood, and the roads, with the exception of Morris Island Road, are private. The recent flooding left them in poor condition.
“Basically we don't have any responsibility for them,” Duncanson said about the roads. The town does have a public safety obligation, and Duncanson said the town will always respond to public safety emergencies as it did during the Jan. 4 storm, when power and gas were cut to the area and rescuers used boats to evacuate residents. But it can't continually pump out flooded roads and basements, and there's a liability concern in using town staff for such tasks.
Hausner noted that the town does have an interest in the tax revenue generated by the tens of millions of dollars in real estate in the neighborhood, which was once a cottage colony but is now the site of nearly 70 houses, most of them summer homes. There's another 80 or so houses on Morris Island and Stage Island whose only access is through the area.
In response to erosion that followed the 1987 break in North Beach across from Lighthouse Beach, the town and shorefront residents developed a plan to protect the shoreline from the Chatham Beach and Tennis Club south to just north of Outermost Harbor Marine, said Director of Coastal Resources Ted Keon. The plan called for construction of a rock revetment in phases, as well as a groin to prevent sand from filling in the marina channel. He said he's not sure whether the project could be permitted under state and local wetlands regulations; there's some question as to whether the underlying geology is a coastal dune – where revetments aren't allowed – or, because the dune has stopped functioning due to erosion, the area would be considered fill or coastal bank and a revetment allowed.
Although an environmental impact report was completed, the project was never pursued; once South Beach connected to the mainland just south of Lighthouse Beach, the threat of erosion to Little Beach disappeared.
Until last April 1, when the beach broke through and a new inlet was established. The recent storms widened the inlet and lowered dunes on the remaining section of South Beach. Coastal scientists say this is part of the natural evolution of the barrier beach, and eventually South Beach will migrate west, which Keon said could provide short-term protection, but once it is exposed to the open ocean, “that area is going to be face challenges,” he said.
Most of Little Beach is only a few feet above sea level. Many of the homes, those renovated or built in the past two decades, are elevated and have raised septic systems. Whether they're high enough to keep them out of what could be regular flooding is uncertain; the flood elevations were based on previous conditions, Duncanson said.
There are certain spots – like a field next to the condos, and the intersections of several roads – that are “just like a bowl,” Duncanson said. “Water gets in and there's no way to get out.” Because groundwater there is only six inches to a foot below the surface, once those areas fill up “it takes a long time to perk down,” he said.
“It's got nowhere to go,” Duncanson said of the floodwaters, caused both by surging tides and heavy rains. One idea floated was to build pumping stations in the areas of the worst flooding, Hausner said.
Flooding that occurred in February was “more of a nuisance” than the dangerous storm surge that flooded basements and made roads impassable on Jan. 4, Hausner said. But he acknowledged it's likely to happen more often, given the exposure from the April Fool's break. One avenue the property owners are investigating is creating a special flood or storm district; that could allow federal or state funding for storm or flood protection.
They've also hired Coastal Engineering of Orleans to investigate shoreline protection for the area. Last Wednesday, the conservation commission approved a change to Outermost Harbor's permit to place dredged sand on the beach to the south of the marina to include the area in front of the condominiums. There's not enough sand in the channel to justify the cost of dredging yet, but that's only a matter of time, Don Monroe of Coastal Engineering told the commission. When dredging becomes necessary, about 1,500 cubic yards of sand will probably be dug out of the channel, with about 500 cubic yards helping to bolster the dune along Starfish Lane, where water poured inland during the Jan. 4 storm.
He acknowledged water could still go around the planned dune.
“That's a larger issue that we're globally looking at with other homeowners in the area,” he said. “But for now it's really only to address minor flooding that takes place on events that aren't as substantial as the [Jan. 4 storm].” There were unusual conditions during the January and February storms that made flooding worse, Hausner added, coming at extreme “king” tides during full moons. “Both those storms had big storm surge events and meteorological events that really amped up the tidal effect,” he said.
Another possibility may be to use sand dredged from the Morris Island channel to build up Little Beach dunes. There is a significant amount of sand there, Keon said, and the site within “reasonable pumping distance.”
“I think that is legitimately an option, at least for the sand source,” he said.
Ultimately, any shoreline protect plan may have to include the entire shore from south of the beach and tennis club to Morris Island, Duncanson said, given long-term factors such as sea level rise. The causeway that connects Morris Island and Stage Island to the mainland, via Little Beach, is not in immediate danger, he said, “because it's a higher elevation.”
“I think we have to work hand in glove with the town of Chatham. There's got to be agreement on the steps to create a long-term solution to this,” said Hausner. Duncanson is working with the town's assessing department to develop a mailing list of property owners in the area; once information is available about possible solutions, neighbors will be contacted and a meeting held to review plans, Hausner said. But there won't be any “snap solution,” he warned.
“We've only got a couple of weeks of this under our belts,” he said. “We're trying to move as quickly as possible.”