ConsCom Approves Red River Revetment Extension

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Erosion

The jetty at the end of Red River Beach is slumping because of tidal erosion from the river. Town officials are seeking to reinforce the revetment and extend it landward slightly. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH The conservation commission agrees that repairing and slightly enlarging a revetment is the best way to stem erosion at the east end of Red River Beach. Provided that state regulators agree, the town will move ahead with the work as soon as possible.

After a short discussion last Wednesday, the commission voted to grant a notice of intent to the town to extend the landward side of the jetty by about 55 feet in an effort to slow the erosion that threatens the paved turn-around at the end of the town beach.

Built many years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers, the revetment has suffered erosion not from Nantucket Sound storm tides but from the flow of Red River. The town obtained emergency permission from the conservation commission in 2012 to install so-called "soft solution" erosion deterrents, including coconut fiber sand bags and beach nourishment with loads of trucked-in sand. The sand bags lasted less than a year, and the truckloads of sand began to choke the river entrance, Usowski said.

In response, the town obtained permission from the conservation commission to have the revetment extended, replanting beach grass on the remaining dune, and retaining a path used by piping plovers in the spring. The state denied that application, saying the Wetlands Protection Act prohibits revetments unless they are protecting houses built prior to 1978.

But the state has since granted permission for two revetment projects that do not protect homes, “so the town is trying this again,” Conservation Agent Amy Usowski said. Usowski helped create the jetty plan with Town Engineer Robert Cafarelli, but was careful not to advocate for the project during the commission’s meeting last week. Instead, the application was presented by Town Administrator Christopher Clark.

The plan calls for the installation of “toe stones” weighing five or six tons each, “basically protecting the revetment at the area where it currently exists for about 25 feet, and then extending out 55 feet at a 45-degree angle to kind of create a little bit more of a barrier to allow the water to flow in a less damaging manner,” Clark told the commission. The community preservation committee has approved $100,000 for the job, pending approval by town meeting in May. “But we’d like to have things lined up to get a contractor on board to commence doing this work as soon as practicable,” he said. If the project wins state regulatory approval, the work could begin this fall.

Though she made no recommendation on the application, Usowski told the commission that existing laws require that, to consider the use of a hard structure like a revetment, “you have to prove that you’ve tried all the other things first.” The town has done so, she noted.

“It’s obvious, from being down there, that something needs to be done,” Commissioner Paula McGuire said. It’s not clear whether the state will approve the work, “but we’ve got to try something,” she said. Town officials have maintained that, without some kind of mitigation, erosion will eventually claim the paved turn-around at the end of the beach.

Commissioner Jim Donovan said he’s not sure the commission would approve the project if it were being proposed by a private entity instead of the town. The law stresses the use of “soft solutions” for erosion, “and that’s to protect the ability of natural processes to occur, which has kind of been well proven that it’s the best way in the long run,” he said. If the commission approves the application, “we would basically be making an exception based on it being for the town,” Donovan added. “I’m not sure if the law really allows that.” Donovan said he favors steps to allow the dune to rebuild itself naturally.

But Usowski noted that the commission approved similar work sought by the Wychmere Pines neighborhood association, where a dwelling was not being protected, and the state upheld the approval. And Clark said recent case law seems to acknowledge that rules can be interpreted differently when the erosion is caused by a man-made structure, rather than natural processes.

“Really it’s the original revetment that’s created some of this, and all we’re trying to do is minimize that impact on the environment and not let it continue to degrade,” he said.

With only Donovan dissenting, the commission voted to grant the notice of intent for the project. The town will be required to apply for a state Chapter 91 permit because the toe stones will extend below the mean high water mark, Usowski added.

With 190 parking spaces, Red River is the town's largest public beach, and generates around $60,000 in daily beach permits every summer, around $5,000 from food truck permits, and some portion of the town's beach sticker sales.