DNREC struggling to maintain local beach crossings

After another summer of the trek to the ocean being a little too tall of an order for some beachgoers, Tony Pratt of DNREC’s Shoreline & Waterway Management division stopped by Fenwick Island town hall on Sept. 26 to discuss dune maintenance with the town council. The core problem with maintaining beach accessibility, he said, is too much to do with too few resources.

“I’ll give you the example of the little blow we had the other day,” he said of the wind and rain storm that only had peak winds of 30 mph but caused about a foot of sand to accumulate on the dune crossings in Fenwick Island. “That has occurred from the Maryland-Delaware” to the Delaware Bay, he emphasized.

“That’s 250 crossings. I’ve heard the same concerns from Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach, you all,” he continued, also noting that the crossings in the state parks were affected. “Help me figure out how to do that,” Pratt said of the challenge of keeping up the ever-changing dune areas — something he said was once handled by a small but dedicated crew.

“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “I’d love to do that, but I don’t have that kind of numbers. Government is getting smaller. We have a dialogue going on about reducing spending, but what we don’t talk about is the reduction of services, what taxation that doesn’t meet the demand is doing to people.”

Pratt said the result has also included disrepair of the state’s roads, along with impacts on what traditionally have been projects handled through federal agencies.

“We haven’t seen navigation work in 17 of those channels in 10 years,” he said of projects to maintain navigable waters in local waterways that are under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The Indian River Inlet can’t be maintained by the federal government.”

“I would like to triple or quadruple my workforce,” Pratt emphasized. “I had a standing assignment for five guys for five to seven years. Every Friday at 1 p.m., they were in Fenwick. [South Bethany Town Manager] Melvin [Cusick] is saying the same thing. They’ve got the same problem in South Bethany.”

The Town hasn’t been in constant contact with DNREC about the condition of the dune crossings just because the council members like to go to the beach themselves.

“People are asking what’s going on,” said Councilman Roy Williams.

Pratt noted that the state’s beaches have experienced erosion problems since the 1970s, with “tremendous problems” seen in the 1980s.

“We saw the beaches in Fenwick, which had been stable for a long time, eroding at a rate of 11 feet per year — well above average. We saw the dune diminish in size. In Hurricane Gloria, we saw the entire dune from the state boundary to Lewes Street completely obliterated,” he recalled. “We began to piecemeal it back as best we could. That led to the operation to begin to nourish beaches with Delaware money, because we were waiting for the Corps.”

The Fenwick beach saw its first renourishment during 1988 and 1989. Federal and state partnerships have since placed 2.25 million cubic yards of sand on the beach, at a cost of $13.03 million.

“We brought ourselves back to much earlier era — the turn of the last century,” he said, to a time when the beach system was “very vigorous and offered resistance to storms” and also dealt with the problem of beaches that are “very crowded.” The benefits of the larger work are significant, he said.

“To have what we have now — riches of sand… It’s very safe to say the dune would have been in Bunting Avenue now,” without the renourishment projects.

But as soon as such projects see the end of work, the changes begin.

“Sand blows. It’s part of the natural process,” Pratt emphasized, noting that there may be big changes ahead for such projects — particularly in how they’re funded.

Funding for beach

projects dwindling

Until now, most of the state’s beach renourishment projects have been funded under a 65/35 federal/state split, with the federal government picking up the majority of the costs. Fenwick Island is the exception, as the passage of time between approval of the other projects and the Fenwick one led to a change to a 50/50 federal/state split.

But Fenwick, Pratt noted, is also the “beneficiary of sand flowing out of Ocean City,” which has received federal funding for beach renourishment. Sand generally moves northward along the coast of the peninsula, so when the newly placed sand on a renourished beach across the state line heads back into the ocean, it eventually ends up in Fenwick Island.

That bonus source of sand is in line with the maintenance cycle of the renourished beach in Fenwick Island, as well, which also was extended to four years, as opposed to the three-year cycle for the state’s other beaches.

The 50-year maintenance agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for all the Delaware beach reconstruction calls for maintaining the reconstructed beaches and dunes to their engineered design. But that maintenance is done in accordance with federal and state budgets. If there’s no money to do it, the projects won’t get done.

“Every time these beach projects have come up, they have gotten funding,” Pratt emphasized, with a note of caution that, with 27 navigable waterways in the state of Delaware, 20 are federally-controlled and under maintenance of the federal government. Of those 20, only three are currently being maintained by the federal government, he said.

On the state side, Pratt explained, he has a single “pot” of money to spend on projects involving both the coastal shorelines and the state’s waterways.

“There’s a severe deficit on the waterway side,” he said. “And we’re projecting a deficit on the shoreline side.”

Pratt said that has state Sen. Gerald Hocker looking at resources for maintaining the state’s waterways. Meanwhile, funding for shoreline projects is something Pratt said the state needs to have a conversation about.

“With all of the work from the bay to Fenwick Island, we have projected a $15 to $20 million deficit in the coming years,” he said. “We will have to make some hard decisions, take a look at the projects or alternate funding sources — or look at cost-sharing with communities.”

Pratt said that last “ugly idea” is a discussion that many hope to avoid.

“There has been $13 million spent here,” he said of Fenwick Island’s beach. “That benefit is 100 percent federal- and state-funded so far. There’s a real possibility of a different scenario going into the future. This discussion is centered around finding revenue we don’t have, but taxes is something people who have been elected don’t want to talk about.”

That big-picture issue affects both the beach and the dunes behind it, but specific to the conversation about sand blowing around and altering the dune crossings in unfavorable ways, Pratt said the state has tried to address both the traditional protective function of the dunes and the ease of access across them, in a balancing act that has been discussed at length in the recent years of the major beach reconstruction projects.

The dunes built in 2007, he said, were constructed to 16 feet above sea level, protected at their foot with 4-foot sand fences that have since been buried by that blown sand — as much as 20 feet of sand in some places, Pratt said.

For comparison, topographical maps dating back to 1979 show dunes with a 20- to 21-foot elevation throughout Fenwick Island at that time. The dunes are naturally undulating, with high peaks in some places.

In earlier beach projects, DNREC used a hard-packing fill material to build the dune crossings, Pratt noted, designing angled crossings to address the problems of crossing the height of the dunes from street level to the beach. The result was that DNREC had to have a regular crew come in every Friday with shovels to correct the movement of sand caused by foot traffic, and to deal with the slick crossings upon which “people were falling all the time.”

“We tried all kinds of things — wood crossings. The Mobi Mats” most of the beach towns use now atop the crossings “are wonderful, as long as the crossings can receive those mats,” he added.

But there were five people working on dunes maintenance in 1982, and today, the crew that does that work statewide is just six people.

“We didn’t have dunes in South Bethany and Bethany Beach,” Pratt said of 1982. “We didn’t have a lot of dunes in Dewey or Rehoboth. … There’s more wear and tear on the state parks, and we haven’t increased the workforce. When [Fenwick Island Town Manager] Merritt [Burke] calls me, I’m spread thin.

“I know our service isn’t the best,” he acknowledged. “I’d like to find a way, with you, to improve. We’ve talked about the towns taking over maintenance of the dunes,” Pratt noted. “That’s not simple, because of the liability,” he emphasized. “We would have to oversee all of them, because people would sue the State, because we own the crossings. That’s embedded in state law.”

Pratt explained that many of the beach areas are owned in fee simple by the State, while others that are privately owned have been dedicated to public use, making them essentially the responsibility of the State. Additionally, the dune crossings, he said, are largely located in DelDOT rights-of-way, “So legally, we have every responsibility, as if it was fee-simple ownership.”

Specifically in Fenwick Island, he said, the deeds for private beachfront property, for the most part, extend only to the back side of the dunes. In incorporated Fenwick, that means private property only goes up to the dune, with the rest of the beachfront dedicated to public use. “We have maintained it for decades,” Pratt said.

Addressing the idea of towns taking over maintenance of the crossings, Councilman Todd Smallwood said he found it hard to believe that the AG’s Office “can’t distinguish between blanket liability” and the liability that would be involved were the towns to take over the maintenance of the crossings. But Mayor Audrey Serio said that wasn’t something the council could tackle that day. “We’re not going to argue that here, now,” she said.

Dune fences and

crossing heights

a focus for concern

At the Sept. 26 discussion, Smallwood expressed some concerns he has about beach access, including that in some locations in Fenwick, snow fence had been replaced with a system of 4-by-4-inch posts connected with rope.

“All that did was create a clothesline for beachgoers,” Smallwood said.

Pratt acknowledged with a bit of humor that the rope fencing had, in fact, been his own idea.

“The reason is we have two fences buried in the dune now. We can continue to climb the front of the dune. We could be up 16 more feet at the front of the dune. I saw this idea being used in Ocean City. It’s known that snow fence is a much better barrier, but it also attracts sand and fills up. At some point, you want the sand to spread over the entire face of the dune, because it provides better protection.”

Pratt explained that waves don’t just damage the face of the dune when they reach the back of the beach. “They might take out 15 feet. Then they take out 15 feet more. The berm gets eroded through.”

Meanwhile, he said, the rope provides a visual barrier to help keep people off the dunes, where they can damage them, though he apologized to anyone who was “clotheslined” by the rope. But, he said, the rope system doesn’t attract any more sand. That keeps the toe of the dune from growing more vertically and spreads the sand over the entire dune, allowing the whole thing to grow by 3 to 4 inches, rather than building up feet at a time over a dune fence, or a series of dune fences.

Councilman Gardner Bunting asked whether a zigzag pattern of fencing might allow the sand drifting to stop every so often along the length of the dune.

“That’s a popular concept in New Jersey,” Pratt acknowledged. “But I’ve also seen tons of crossings full of sand — twice as much,” he said, as some crossings with a standard pattern of fencing. “The grass on the dune is as much or more effective at trapping sand as whatever configuration of fence you want to put in. The grass grows back up through it, so it looks like the same elevation.” He added that he’s also seen the zigzag fencing in New Jersey buried under accumulated sand.

Bunting asked about another fencing layout — one used in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in which one fence is placed 20 feet farther from the dune than another. “It stops the sand drifting into the crossings by it building farther down.”

Pratt said that design was used at Cape Henlopen State Park. “We’re now up about four to five dune fences high,” he explained. “You’re walking on a precipice. … It gives me one season, then it’s buried and the sand continues to blow.”

Bunting asked about ways to address the steepness of the approach on the west side of the dune.

“There are three ways to change the elevation,” Pratt explained. “You can do a switchback, which digs more into the back side of the dune. The Corps won’t let us do that,” he said, because it would reduce the protection offered by the dune. “You can try keeping the top lower and digging it out on repetitive basis. Or you can taper it way back into the road. That would take out the first 30 feet of road. We did something similar in South Bethany, but at the expense of going a farther distance inland” with the road. “I know you all don’t want to lose road footage.”

Mayor Audrey Serio said that might still be an option. “Everybody has their opinion about how things should be done. The problem is it all costs money. The residents don’t want to pay more taxes, so the whole issue is everybody has to give. And maybe we don’t need a crossing at every street. There are lots of things that, in time, will have to happen to make everything manageable. There are lots of things Delaware has taken for granted, and particularly people in our towns.”

Councilman Bill Weistling asked whether wider crossings might make a difference.

Pratt said the material DNREC is using for fill now seems to be wearing a lot better than that used in the past but it would be a funding challenge to widen the crossings. He noted that the crossings would have to be engineered so they don’t run east-west, which would channel wind right through them and potentially create a 10-foot gulley, but that engineering crossings that would handle northeast and northwest winds is “not so simple, it turns out.”

“The Corps would have to approve the widening. Up to 10 feet — that’s a 40 percent increase in width and cost to them,” he explained, noting that the Corps makes such decisions using cost-benefit ratios. “We could run it by them. I don’t know that we would fix it” by doing so. “We might get another year or so with some of them.”

He also pointed to another hazard of making the crossing wider: increasing the likelihood that people will drive over the dunes when they wouldn’t have with a narrower crossing. He said crossings in Dewey Beach that were opened up for equipment to traverse the dunes led to other vehicles driving over them, potentially damaging the dunes.

Too many crossings

to maintain, no way

to transfer responsibility

Smallwood acknowledged early in his comments to Pratt that the dunes “look great” and offered his thanks for that. But, he said, “The biggest complaint over last several years is accessibility over the crossings.” He said Pratt’s department seem to have become more reactive than forward-thinking in recent years, responding to photos of broken dune fences with jagged wire sent by the Town but not “numerous other complaints” previously sent to them about the same situation.

“It seems like only then do we get a reaction,” he said, adding that the same goes for maintenance problems with the ADA-accessible dune crossing on Bayard Street. As he has previously noted, when people search the Internet for an accessible beach, Fenwick Island is one location that they find that is supposed to have one.

“But for eight months you couldn’t get over it with an ATV,” Smallwood asserted. “It frustrates me when we have the equipment and manpower to do the job, but you won’t let us do it. I’d get ticked-off if I came into town from outside the area, seeing that we have an ADA ramp, and found 6 feet of sand and I can’t get over it.”

Pratt said he shares that frustration, but that the State has ruled that the responsibility for the crossings can’t be transferred to anyone else, both in discussions about the issue of the manageability of the crossings some 25 years ago and earlier this year, when the Attorney General’s Office reaffirmed that was the case.

“I would welcome that debate,” Pratt admitted. “I’m frustrated that I don’t have a larger workforce.”

Pratt said he still has a standing pattern of management for his beach maintenance crews, though it no longer includes a visit to Fenwick every Friday afternoon.

“We suffer the consequences of winter storms,” he noted of the work involved each year before the summer season. And, he said, “The crossings have tripled in number and size — more than we’ve ever had — and the workforce is not any bigger.”

Pratt said the crews begin their major work in March and April, after the stormy fall and winter seasons that do the bulk of the damage to the beaches each year. “It’s still a windy period of time,” he emphasized, noting that crews have cleared crossings only to have them fill back up within three weeks. “That’s also the case in South Bethany, Rehoboth Beach and Dewey,” he added, noting the frequent pleas from the towns to “Come fix it.”

“We’re just replacing the fencing in the state parks that was taken down in Sandy,” he said of the 2012 super-storm. “That’s how far behind we are in our workload.”

Pratt noted that Broadkill Beach is about to be renourished, in the process adding more than 2 miles of crossings — about 130 in all — that the State will have to maintain with the same six-person crew.

“Talk to your local representatives, legislators, say, ‘Take a look at the budget and see if we have enough people to do the work that we have.’ Personally, I’m embarrassed by the service reputation we have. It’s a C+ performance. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Pratt emphasized that the battle against the shifting sands is a never-ending one.

“Nature has its own way, and blowing sand in crossings is difficult. If we dig 4 feet out, we soon have 4 more feet on either side of the fence. If we put another one in, that will rise to 20 feet.”

While some have asked DNREC and the Corps to reduce the dune height to ease accessibility and improve views from beachfront property, Pratt emphasized that state law prohibits leveling an entire dune and that it would be an “extraordinary” project to re-grade and replant the existing dunes even if the law allowed. “And we would have to do it here and in South Bethany, Bethany, Dewey, Broadkill — all of them.”

Pratt said he felt his department has had a good dialogue with Burke about the issues in Fenwick Island and expected the incoming manager of field operations for his division to continue to try to work effectively with the Town and others. “But there are going to be failure days, days when we don’t have the services available,” he acknowledged.

Williams had a more practical aspect of the dune crossing problem that he wanted addressed.

“Access is the biggest complaint,” he said. “I went fishing today, and on the east side, from two storms, it had increased another foot. That creates the problem. What do we have to do for [beachgoers] to help them be able to access the beach without complaints? If there are too many complaints, they aren’t going to want to come back.

“Do we have to buy more machines to transport people? This is information we need so we can make a decision on how to go forward with the rule and regulations that have been set.”

Weistling also inquired about the potential to appeal the regulations that would keep the towns from taking over maintenance of the dune crossings. “Is there a process by which we can apply for a permit?”

Pratt again emphasized the DelDOT right-of-way and a 40-plus-year presence of the State in maintaining the beach and dune system. “It’s State-maintained and State-‘owned’ because of the easement.” A transfer of responsibility for the dune crossings could be discussed with the Attorney General’s Office, he said. But, he warned, should they succeed in any such appeal, “Let the buyer beware. You will pay for it all.”