SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Erosion is a fight, and this town’s beach seems to be losing it. This year, again, chunks of sand have disappeared.
Each year, rushing water from the Atlantic Ocean steals both the sand and nearby foundations of land.
“If you think about it as man against nature, I guess we are losing,” said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager.
Perhaps, when looking back at least two decades, it’s like shoveling sand against the tide. The task is so big that it probably won’t get finished easily. So far, a patchwork of repairs has tried to fix the problem that won’t go away, according to town officials responsible for overseeing the annual fixes.
“Most of Rhode Island’s shoreline is erosional –the sand disappears more quickly than it is replenished – so erosion is a problem the state as a whole faces. South Kingstown’s beaches are especially susceptible,” Laura Dwyer, spokeswoman for the Coastal Resources Management Council, told The Independent last week.
Another Tough Winter
This winter and spring are no exception at the South Kingstown Town Beach in Matunuck.
Sharp edges of cut-away turf tower above a stony beach now in early spring. These walls are back further, as a little more of the sand in front lies under more water. It is, as Zarnetske put it, a natural evolution.
“The shoreline is changing,” he said. “Our and our grandparents’ definitions of where the lines of sea and sand are will change, as has been happening forever.”
Zarnetske said, “The shoreline will be there. There will be a shoreline, but what it looks like and how we enjoy it will change – and is changing. We build new experiences around that.”
The Matunuck area near the beach has had erosion problems for many years. Just ahead, according to town officials, could be the start of building a 350-foot sheetpile seawall within South Kingstown’s right-of-way along Matunuck Beach Road.
The seawall had been under discussion and review as the second phase of a project designed to protect the road and associated town infrastructure from shoreline erosion. Phase one consisted of a 200-foot seawall built immediately to the east of the proposed work site, but that was not completed quickly.
The same goes for addressing issues at the town beach. Quick solutions are not easily found.
Back in 2005, discussions by state and local officials showed that permanently solving erosion problems along South Kingstown’s coast would be difficult.
Town officials and representatives from the state Department of Environmental Management, the state CRMC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weighed their options.
One matter was clear: Improving the town beach will require more than just dumping more sand on it.
No Easy Solutions
Dwyer told The Independent last week, “The Town of South Kingstown has chosen retreat and removal over the years: first with the boardwalk on the active beach, and then with moving the pavilion landward as erosion has encroached. The CRMC always advocates for this method when possible.”
In 2005, CRMC said that while short-term issues need to be addressed immediately, long-term matters were also a concern.
Terry Murphy, town director of Leisure Services, which oversees the beach with the Recreation Commission, agreed.
“There’s nothing we’re going to do to stop mother nature,” she said. Other officials pointed to solutions, such as an artificial barrier off the coast, that would most likely meet opposition from state environmental officials.
There is a preference, local officials said, for keeping things “natural.”
Murphy said each year the town re-manicures the area. It sometimes brings in sand to replace that which had washed away, so summer visitors can plant umbrellas, chairs and beach towels.
Just underneath the imported soft sand is a harder part of the ground. It’s a reminder of what’s permanently under the temporary feel-good part that vanishes to reveal hard pan soil on which washed up rocks await removal.
None of this was lost on officials 15 years ago.
“Matunuck’s shoreline has lost 30 feet of beach in the past decade,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed at the time. “One solution to address the needs of the area would be to bring the sediment to be dredged from Point Judith to the shoreline.”
But former Town Manager Stephen Alfred replied at the time that if the sand were simply dumped on the beach, “it would wash away in no time,” and the best way to approach the situation was to address both the short- and long-term effects of erosion.
“The broader question is the long-term impact,” Alfred had said. “A lot of people are looking for short-term solutions, which are of minimal importance.”
Zarnetske, Alfred’s replacement, is more sanguine about the future and solutions.
“The challenge is in the mind frame and how you think about it,” he said in an interview last week. “We can manage the erosion at this point. We will make sure the beach is a nice place. When it has cliffs and hard soil at some point, we’ll design something new for it.”
Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.