A Not Very Funny April Fool’s Storm
April 2, 2017
Vern Ellis got up early on April 2nd. He wanted to see what winter storm Theseus had done to the dunes in front of his Northern Reservation Terrace home.
Theseus had been the exact opposite of winter storm Stella. It sat 800 miles offshore building waves that had become ten-foot high monsters by the time they reached Plum Island. They then pounded the island as the storm dropped first snow, then sleet, then rain.
Nobody had appreciated the lousy April Fool’s joke that caused more erosion but less wind damage than Stella.
Vern saw that the storm had torn another 5 to 10 feet off the dunes but he also saw where waves had washed more sand through the jetty. Now three, acre sized sandbars hugged the riverside of the structure.
The most recent sandbar from Theseus lay stretched along the seaward end of the jetty. The sandbar from Stella lay clumped up in the middle of the jetty while the sandbar left from the February storms had already snaked around the spur of the jetty and was starting to protect the houses on Northern Reservation Terrace. The sandbars weren’t enough to solve the problem but
they were a decent first step until the Corps could act.
But it was what Vern saw that evening at high tide that had concerned him the most. Scores of people were walking on the leading edge of the dune, where the winter storms had deposited almost a foot of new sand.
Spring was normally when the dunegrass would start growing up through the new sand leaving a matrix of roots to bind together the dune below. This is how the front of the dune grows to become the primary dune, nature’s first bulwark against coastal erosion.
However dunegrass dies when people walk on it or make a path through it because sand will slough off the grass onto the path, which kills the grass after a few days of exposure.
When the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation prepared the beach for the summer, it had been limited by two conditions. Another agency, the state’s Natural Heritage office stipulated that the work had to be completed by April 1st when plover were supposed to start nesting. Plus they had to use ropes tied to poles instead of snow fencing that had worked so effectively at keeping people off the dunes the summer before.
This year they would have to use this symbolic fencing so plover could make their way to the beach. The problem was, nobody had ever seen a piping plover on this part of the beach because it had too much vegetation and its scarps were too steep for the birds to clamber up and down them. They liked broad new overwash areas where they could run up and down the beach unencumbered by vegetation and drop-offs.
The other problem was that the symbolic fencing looked just like a ropewalk so people were using it like a handrail as they trampled a path through the most fragile and important keystone species of the dune itself. So you had one state agency fixated on protecting a single species, that wasn’t there, against another state agency trying to protect the habitat that the entire ecosystem depended on.
It was a conundrum that only Bruce Tarr could solve and he would get his chance at the next meeting of the Merrimack River Beach Alliance scheduled for April 21st.
William Sargent is a member of Storm Surge that helps support these articles. His book, Plum Island; 2016, is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.