Paul Schrader and I wrote this article which was published in the environmental supplement to The Sandwich Enterprise newspaper called "Preserving Cape Cod" on September 19, 2008. It is reproduced here with permission of the publisher. The video that we are producing about Town Neck Beach and Old Harbor Marsh has a working title of "Town Neck Beach, Sands of Change" and will be available to Sandwich residents who have Channel 13 on Comcast as well as from the town and school libraries in February 2009. For updated info, see http://randyhuntcpa.blogspot.com/2009/02/town-neck-beach-sands-of-change.html.
Town Neck Beach: Past, Present, and Future?
by PAUL SCHRADER and RANDY HUNT
Editor's Note: Beach erosion is an environmental concern faced by all those who love the landscape of the Cape. Shifting and disappearing barrier beaches and the damage left in their wake are a reality in many locations on Cape Cod and the Islands. In the following article, Randy Hunt and Paul Schrader describe some of the specific problems facing the Town of Sandwich. Mr. Schrader and Mr. Hunt are collaborating on a video that they hope will bring the erosion problems facing Sandwich into the spotlight before it's too late.
The Town of Sandwich and indeed all of the area we know as Cape Cod were created about 25,000 years ago when the last continental glaciers retreated from the area. As the ice melted, it deposited the sand and rocks that make up the surface layer of our geography. Over eons, vegetation grew and created topsoil in some areas while in other places the sand was exposed to the elements. Natural actions of wind and wave and rain have continually modified the original terrain. The wonderful sand dunes we admire and that are the distinguishing characteristic of the Cape are the direct result of these processes.
Human activity has also been a major factor in changes to the land and seascapes. Development and construction have modified primal configurations. Seemingly benign activities like walking through grassy areas of the dunes are likely to disturb the topsoil and vegetation that serve to protect the underlying sand. Once exposed, the sands are easily eroded. Anyone who has constructed a sandcastle or otherwise observed sand at the seashore knows that sand moves much like a liquid. It is carried by ocean currents in the bay and generally moves from north to south in a counterclockwise direction. For ages, sand from the White Cliffs area of Plymouth moved toward Scusset and Town Neck beaches in Sandwich while sand from those beaches moved toward Spring Hill and Sandy Neck.
For generations, the dunes we call Town Neck Beach have served as a valuable attraction, important recreational and economic resource for both locals and visitors. The area is also home to several species of protected birds. Perhaps most importantly, the dunes serve as a barrier between the ocean waves, the marsh, and downtown Sandwich. We are concerned that the buffer that once protected the Town of Sandwich is quickly disappearing.
The most important human impact regarding Town Neck Beach occurred when the Cape Cod Canal was completed in 1914 and renovated in the 1930s. The natural process of sand replenishment was interrupted, and sand that was once deposited on the beach was swept into the canal or farther out into the bay. The problem was exacerbated in the 1960s when the jetties and groins intended to protect the canal were reinforced and lengthened to reduce the movement of sand into the canal. Sand that previously moved into the canal was now being deposited on the northwest side of the canal on Scusset Beach. At the time, it was understood that Town Neck Beach would “require replenishment at suitable intervals.” While this has been done sporadically, it is at best a temporary solution. Unfortunately, it may well be the only one available because the potential alternatives are all prohibitively costly.
The erosion caused by tropical storms has also been a major factor in the loss of sand. Several near breaches have been created, and there is a real possibility that cut-throughs similar to those in Chatham and Martha’s Vineyard could develop. This could quickly sweep away sediment in the marsh and bring the ocean very close to downtown Sandwich. We need not dwell on the consequences of such an event.
The Town of Sandwich has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Mirant Canal Plant for several years to obtain the spoils dredged from the canal and have them placed on the beach. The town has also been working on a plan to relocate the Old Sandwich Harbor inlet. The goal of this plan is “to improve and stabilize the inlet, to provide erosion protection, reduce upland flooding, promote beach stability, and develop appropriate beach renourishment.”
While town, state and federal officials and agencies consider what might be done, there are some steps that we can take to mitigate the problem. In the course of making a video to highlight the problem, we noted that, in spite of warning signs, people trample through the dunes, damaging the topsoil and grasses. Within view of the "No Dogs Allowed On Beach" signs, many people bring their dogs, letting them run free and leaving their waste behind. On one occasion a human apparently thought the area a septic system of sorts: we have the video to prove it. This was accomplished by crawling under the protected bird species "crime scene" tape and climbing up the dune grass to her makeshift porta-potty. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. The word "agape" comes to mind.
Let's face it; we understand the importance of protecting nature much better than we did when we were kids. Memories of skidding down the dunes on mats of cardboard are familiar to many of us. Pulling up some beach grass to stoke the campfire was commonplace. But we also rode home in cars without seat belts, and no one gave a second thought to taking the wheel after several drinks. Times have changed, and we all have learned. We believe we all must be accountable and do what we can to preserve the environmentally sensitive area for ourselves and for future generations. We hope everyone who enjoys the area will use this precious resource with care.