November 4, 2016
On November 4th I attended the monthly meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Users Alliance. The MRBA is a unique coalition of local, state and federal officials that prides itself on always having all the players sitting together around the same table.
But today there was a palpable sense of fear and expectation in the room, expectation that the upcoming erosion season was going to be particularly long and dangerous; and fear that nobody was really prepared to deal with it.
Residents on Northern Reservation Terrace had watched October’s King Tides as they washed over thirty feet of sand off the dunes of their houses in not a particularly stormy month. What would happen when the King Tides returned in November when the moon would be 30,000 miles closer to the earth than any time in the past 70 years?
In the old days people figured that the erosion season ran from December through March. In fact the National Lifesaving Service only paid surfmen to patrol the beaches during those four months. But in recent years the King Tides have extended the erosion season. In 2015 erosion had started when the King Tides had peaked in September. This year the erosion season would really get cooking when the King Tides peaked in November. In 2018 they would peak on January 2nd.
There was fear in the room, because everyone knew that they really weren’t prepared. Anders Bjarngard was frustrated. His firm hadn’t been able to start engineering the twin dune system because some of the state agencies had dragged their feet issuing permits for GZA to proceed. It was ironic that a project designed to protect dunes had been held up while bureaucrats checked to make sure no needle grass would be disturbed.
The delays meant that GZA would not be able to start planting dune grass until December when it wouldn’t have time to grow a matrix of rhizomes to hold the dunes together internally. So the artificial dunes would be no more than two piles of loose sand during the critical first year of the project.
Nothing had really happened about a plan to stockpile sand in case erosion broke through the island. Mayor Holladay noted rather pointedly that sand that Newburyport had put in Newbury’s Olga’s Way for both communities to use in the case of an emergency had disappeared at least four times. Many suspected the sand had ended up in front of erosion prone private homes in Newbury.
As the meeting proceeded it became clear that despite past discussions about sand bags and long term solutions, all the communities planned to do, and about all they could do in the event of a severe erosion emergency, was to shut off the water and sewer mains and evacuate the island.