The Comings And Goings Of Beach Sand

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There are a number of attributes of Eastern Long Island that attract hordes of people here during the summer season. Topping that list is our beautiful beaches, with their light-colored, perfectly sized grains of sand that are mostly composed of the mineral quartz.Taking a careful, critical look at how we manage our sandy bay and ocean beachfronts, one might wonder if anyone here understands how sand moves. Of course we do, and we have known it for centuries. But somehow we keep making decisions based on the mistaken notion that our sandy coastline is a static place, and its beach sand will stay exactly where we want it and not move.

That has created a lot of problems—and some very expensive problems at that. Based on several recent projects to keep beach sand in one place, deposit beach sand from where it has disappeared, and remove it from where it is not wanted, I’m going to take a guess and say that many hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps totaling over $1 billion, have been spent here on Long Island messing with sand.

In hopes that pictures are worth a thousand words, here are some photos that illustrate what happens when we forget that our sandy coastline is a very dynamic environment that is constantly changing.

Armoring the primary dune with large rocks or sandbags will not protect the dune. It will buy more time for the expensive structures that were built—not all that long ago—too close to the ocean and bay. And it will eventually cause the loss of the priceless beach that has been shifting around in that general location for thousands of years.

As with sand, inlets come and go, shifting slowly with the littoral current. Fixing an inlet in one spot requires accommodating that shoreline current and its sand-filled conveyor belt, and not interrupting the flow. Otherwise, we are just creating another problem for ourselves.

The notion that getting a better “flush” for our harbors and salt ponds is the answer to poor water quality and flooded septic systems is outdated. It is time to develop a plan for treating the cause, not the symptoms, of the problem. No one should have the right to pollute. Our policy of “grandfathering” archaic septic systems that sit too close to the water table, or in some cases right in it, needs to be changed.

There are many more examples of poor coastal planning in this area, and it’s not clear to me that we have learned anything from the mistakes. A good example is the Montauk Lighthouse revetment. The large rocks placed on a sand foundation in the most dynamic environment on all of Long Island failed to stay in place. The solution: place larger rocks on the sand foundation.

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