Nantucket Beach Erosion | A Disappearing Island
In effect, nourishment tries to tap into the complex system of give-and-take that defines any beach. Simply put, the ocean moves sand from one location to another — the direction varies according to the currents — through a process called littoral drift. Waves wash up onshore, deposit material, and then fill up again with material as they recede. But the harder the water rolls in, the more material it extracts and the less it leaves behind. And that’s what’s happening in ‘Sconset, where a high traffic transport of sand — the equivalent of about 20,000 dumptruck loads of the stuff — moves through the water each year.
Creating nourished beds, however, involves six months of around-the-clock dredging and vacuuming sand from the ocean bottom, while the slurry is pumped through underwater pipes onto the beach and bulldozers move and shape the material. The life expectancy of the sacrificial portion of a nourished beach is just three to five years, which means that ‘Sconset would be looking at a permanent cycle of renourishment and the costs that come with it.
But although the SBPF homeowners would absorb the financial hit, year-round islanders say, Not so fast. How will nourishment affect fishing and wildlife? How will it affect neighboring beaches? Where will all this sand go once the sea gets ahold of it?
“They like living there, but I don’t think it’s just about protecting their houses,” says Dirk Roggeveen, administrator of the Conservation Commission. “I think Helmut and others putting up the money are really just interested in the challenge: Can you stop the process and can you do it in a way that’s environmentally responsible? And if there’s damage, can you mitigate it?”
Weymar dismisses any notion that hubris is behind the proposal. “We’re not talking about rocket science,” he says. “It’s been done hundreds upon hundreds of times all over the globe.” Still, Weymar has made one important precautionary move: A few years ago he bought an empty lot across the street. Just in case.
“The homes here are cohesive,” he says. “People say, Move the houses. Yeah, right. One here, one there, scatter the place around versus [preserving] this integral, incredibly precious and valuable historic architectural resource that we’ve got now. If you do the 100-year projection of long-term erosion rates, it’s going to go. The shorefront will be in the middle of ‘Sconset Village.” Weymar is still standing in his backyard. But now, instead of facing the bluff, he’s wheeled around toward his home. “All these houses will be gone.”
A prediction like that doesn’t surprise Josh Eldridge. He’s 34, with a mop of dark hair tucked under a weathered baseball cap. Eldridge is driving his tired-looking truck, with a sticker that says, “The Mate Works for Tips,” slapped on the back bumper. Eldridge, a ‘Sconset native who now lives in Nantucket Town, is headed back to his home turf for a visit.
He may not live in ‘Sconset anymore — “Can’t afford it,” he says with a laugh — but his family connection to the village goes back four generations. There’s even a road there named after them.
As a kid, Eldridge often rode shotgun in his grandfather’s dumptruck, helping out as his granddad made the rounds collecting residential trash. “We’d be up on North Bluff — and this was like ’76 or ’77 — and he’d be looking at those big homes going, ‘Yep, one day these things will all be gone,'” says Eldridge, in between gulps of ginger ale. “Everybody knew it then. This erosion is not a surprise. Everything disappears. The tides are rising. It’s gonna go away.”
Like many year-round residents here who aren’t packing trust funds, Eldridge is a lot of things: real-estate broker, mechanic, carpenter. But fishing is what defines him. And in large part it defines the position he takes on any massive operation to control erosion. As it’s proposed, SBPF’s beach-nourishment project would have a direct impact on what Eldridge and others who make their living at sea say is a prime but delicate fishing resource: thousands of acres of cobble through which bass, flounder, bonita, and bluefish, among other species, pass at various times of the year to feed on squid, lobster, sand eels, anchovies, and crab.
Still in his truck, Eldridge weaves around the small rotary at the center of ‘Sconset and then down into Codfish Park, a flat area of beach, dunes, and little former fish shacks that have been prettied up as summer rentals. Eldridge parks and hops out. “Let’s go for a walk,” he says. He slips off his sandals and begins making his way through beach grass and dune, toward the water. About halfway there, he stops, raises his right hand, and points to the sea, sweeping his finger across the horizon.
“This is the hot zone,” he says. “It’s maybe one of the top three most important pieces of bottom in southeastern Massachusetts. When people look for big fish in big numbers, they come to Sankaty. The guys from Chatham, they could go anywhere in Cape Cod Bay, but they decide to come here. I’m not trying to downplay the situation. [The homeowners] would be screwed. I’ll feel bad for their summer houses, but I’ll also feel really bad if my fishing business goes to crap.”
That cobble will be destroyed isn’t up for debate. Between the dredging work and the heightened littoral drift that will result from giving the ocean more material to feed on, SBPF’s own scientists have predicted as much, prompting the group to offer compensation for lost wages and a project to re-create the destroyed habitat. What’s contested is the estimated amount (105 acres) and its significance. Even a minor shift in the quality of hard bottom along these waters could have a detrimental effect on an island where the last vestige of a once-great fishing community is now an overcrowded charter industry.
Which is another way of saying: This story is about more than just sand and water. It’s about identity: about who’s going to have a say over the very force that built this island up and now in another form is in the process of taking it away. To locals, a project like SBPF’s is a brazen display of wealth that violates the code of adaptability that’s required to live in such a vulnerable environment. It’s another signal that Nantucket no longer creates fortunes — it just attracts them.