Environment: Shrinking Shores

Overdevelopment, poor planning and nature take their toll

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That does not stop people from trying. The growing damage to oceanfront property has generated a host of makeshift solutions to erosion. On Galveston Bay, desperate ranchers have positioned junked cars on the shore to prevent the waters from washing away roads. Conservation officers are planting dense patches of cordgrass just offshore in an effort to buffer the bay's clay banks from the relentlessly lapping waters. To protect the transplants until they take hold, conservationists have jury-rigged a protective barrier of old Air Force parachutes in the water to absorb and attenuate the force of the waves. Harry Cook, a Texas shrimper, is considering wire mesh and old tires to keep the bay waters from chewing away any more of his bluffs, which he is losing at the rate of 10 ft. yearly. On Long Island, beach residents shore up dunes with driftwood and old tires. And in Carlsbad, Calif., the community has come up with a number of ideas, from planting plastic kelp to laying a sausage-like tube along the beach in order to trap sand normally washed away during high tide.

There are more substantive approaches to beach protection. When properly designed and built, they can slow beach erosion. Nonetheless, most are ineffective in the long run and can actually exacerbate damage. A seawall, for example, may protect threatened property behind it, but it often hastens the retreat of the beach in front as waves dash against the wall and scour away sand. Louis Sodano, mayor of Monmouth Beach, N.J., knows the process firsthand. "When I moved here 28 years ago, you could walk the whole beach," he remembers. "Now the waves slap against the wall. We've lost 100 ft. of beach in the past 28 years."

A variant on the seawall that can also hasten erosion is riprap -- rocks and boulders piled into makeshift barriers to absorb the force of incoming waves. While seawalls and riprap run parallel to the beach, groin fields extend directly out into the water. Made up of short piers of stone extending from the beach and spaced 100 yds. or so apart, they can slow erosion by trapping sand carried by crosscurrents. But down current, the lack of drifting sand can result in worse erosion. "It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul," says Leatherman -- a concept the O'Malleys of Westhampton Beach understand all too well, since it was a neighboring groin field that robbed their beach of replenishing sand.

Jetties can cause beach larceny on an even grander scale. Long concrete or rock structures, they jut out into the water to keep inlets and harbors navigable by keeping sand and silt from drifting in. Like groin fields, jetties can keep sand from replenishing beaches down current. The construction 90 years ago of a pair of jetties to improve the harbor at Charleston, S.C., altered currents and natural sand drift so drastically that there is no beach left at high tide at nearby Folly Beach. In Florida an estimated 80% to 85% of the beach erosion on the state's Atlantic Coast is caused by the maintenance of 19 inlets, all but one of them made or modified by man to link the open ocean and inland waterways.

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