CHATHAM – After the 1987 break in North Beach, a long-range plan was developed in response to what was expected to be continued erosion south of Lighthouse Beach. But conditions changed – South Beach connected to the mainland and provided protection for the inner shoreline – and the plan was never fully implemented.
That's just one reason no one was prepared for the devastating effect this past winter's four nor'easters had on the Little Beach area, which experienced severe flooding and property damage.
To keep from being caught unaware again, town officials are eying a study of the town's entire eastern shoreline – from lower Pleasant Bay to the Morris Island cut and the entrance to Stage Harbor – to assess existing conditions following the storms and begin developing contingency plans for the future.
“We're trying to be proactive here rather than reactive,” said Director of Natural Resources Dr. Robert Duncanson. “Obviously a single storm could throw everything for a loop, but we have to have a way to manage this, or at least figure it out, rather than wait until after it happens and try to figure out what to do.”
The town has received a proposal for the study from the Center for Coastal Studies and Applied Coastal Engineering. While officials would like to get it started as soon as possible – field data collection will be easier to do in the summer, Duncanson pointed out – a mechanism for funding the $250,000 study has not yet been identified. One potential funding source is the Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office's Coastal Resilience Grant program, he said. The program has $2.5 million available for fiscal 2019, with up to $500,000 available for individual projects. Grants are due May 25.
A fall special town meeting could be another source of funding, Duncanson said. The $11 million waterways bond approved last year could also be tapped, although he said those funds were targeted at infrastructure improvements and was probably not enough to meet even those needs.
The study will look at the impacts of the winter storms on the shoreline, from the flooding at Little Beach to the undermining of revetments in North Chatham, as well as the hydrodynamics of the waterways and where all the sand from the inner and outer beaches is going.
“We're looking at basically the whole system,” Duncanson said. That includes North Beach, North Beach Island and South Beach, all of which were radically reshaped by the winter storms. That, in turn, has had a major impact on navigation, with the 1987 and 2007 inlets continuing to jostle for dominance over the flow of water into and out of Pleasant Bay and Chatham Harbor.
“We're now dealing with multiple inlets and things are rapidly changing with the barrier beaches,” he said. “We're trying to get a better understanding of that whole system, how it works together, how changes over here may effect properties over there.”
In comments at last Thursday's waterways advisory committee meeting, Coastal Resources Director Ted Keon made it abundantly clear that changes to both the shoreline and the waterways are significant.
“If you haven't gone out recently,” he told members of the committee, “it's going to be different. There's a lot of sand moving around.”
The cut between Morris Island and Monomoy is a “wall of sand,” he said. “There really isn't a channel anywhere.” Much of South Beach was flattened by the storms, and the Fool's Break has widened but is shallow. Shoals have moved landward of South Beach and have not yet closed off the channel to Outermost Harbor, “but it's very close,” he said.
Getting over the bar at the 1987 inlet “is going to be challenging at best,” he added. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said one of his department's skiffs ran aground there recently.
“There's just no water out there,” he said.
The 2007 inlet opposite Minister's Point (also known as the north inlet) is clogged with sand, although a “very narrow” channel still between the shoals and the tip of North Beach Island. “Hopefully that will maintain itself but there's no guarantee on that one.” Shoals seem to be pushing deep water against the revetted inner shore, which also happened further south near Holway Street some years ago.
A channel appears to be developing from Pleasant Bay through the north inlet. “A lot of the outgoing tide that used to run down the Lighthouse inlet now looks like it's being captured and running out the north inlet. Which just means the south inlet is going to close up potentially more quickly,” Keon said.
“We've got a lot going on out there,” he added.
Bringing all the issues together – geomorphic changes, hydrodynamics, bathymetrics – will “help inform the issue of channels and dredging and all that,” Duncanson said.
Duncanson said the study should take about nine months. He plans to bring the details to the board of selectmen soon, and hopes the study can get off the ground sooner rather than later.
“Mother Nature's not waiting for us,” he said.